[dotCommonweal, Matthew Boudway] The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo had fun making fun. They spent their whole careers trying to be outrageous, trying to offend, and there is nothing particularly heroic about that. But in the end, after the threats of violence began to arrive, they could continue to be outrageous only by being courageous too—by refusing to let terrorists decide what they were allowed to draw and print. Like most Catholics and most Americans (few of whom had ever heard of the magazine before last week), I can't honestly say, "Je suis Charlie." And in a way, that's beside the point. Solidarity is not always a function of identity. Enough to be able to say, along with many who've never read it and many others whose ox it regularly gores, "Vive Charlie Hebdo!" Read on.
[Addison Bross] Last week, onetime Lehigh University professor and current member of Grace Allentown Addison Bross posted the following essay on Bakery about his "Je ne suis pas Charlie" stance.
Mes chers amis de Bakery,
Je ne suis pas Charlie.
First, to avoid possible misreading of the following remarks: I acknowledge that acts of barbaric cruelty, implying an incredibly presumptuous contempt for the image of God in other human beings -- acts that no motive or precedent whatsoever can justify -- have occurred in that world-center of civilized life, Paris. Four French citizens have responded to a series of offensive cartoons by slaughtering the persons who created and published them in the journal Charlie Hebdo. The French people's immediate expressions of grief and solidarity for these murders are as appropriate, necessary, and admirable as is any public rejection to cruel, senseless violence. But I am unwilling to join the crowds bearing the sign "Je suis Charlie."
Amid our pundits' loud denunciations of this so-called "attack on freedom of expression," I'd like to consider quietly for a moment just what these images that prompted the terrorists' acts actually were. Also, the context in which they appeared. Along with these tasks, I want to offer some thoughts about the role of satire for producing a healthy society.
Pundits are now coming forward to rescue Charlie Hebdo from the threat of what they call a violent form of censorship (censorship by terrorism). They are lauding Charlie and its cartoons as a healthy and powerful kind of satire -- satire that is, yes, abrasive but hence all the more to be honored and protected as courageous "free expression" bound -- because of its very "courage" -- to offend some segment of the public. Pious reflections are being intoned about "the power of the pen," which violence, we are assured, "will never disarm."
However, putting Charlie's cartoons in the historical context of French satire reveals something that prompts my hesitance to join in their praise. Such stars in this long and splendid history as the 17th-century playwright-actor Jean-Batiste Poquelin (aka Moliere) and printmaker Honore Daumier come to mind. Through such plays as Tartuffe, The Miser, and The Bourgeois Gentleman, Moliere taught his society to laugh at (and thus most effectively abhor and reject) such flaws as religious hypocrisy, greed, and snobbish classism -- as these were becoming rampant at the very top of the French social order. Daumier is most famous perhaps for drawings and lithographs that treated irreverently certain corrupt politicians, blundering officials, and pretentious attorneys -- again, the powerful. His caricature of King Louis Philippe (1831) as a bloated Gargantua devouring his subjects got him six months in jail. Charlie's cartoons, I believe, fall outside this tradition of great French satire; indeed they stain it. A comparison will make this clear.
Both Moliere and Daumier committed their talents to deflating the wealthy and the powerful, to irreverently expose certain shortcomings of the established order that lots of Frenchmen were willing to overlook. (If overlooking the vices of officials has become the common response, then such overlooking must indeed be comme il faut. The great satirists won greatness mainly by offering an alternative to the common acceptance of the stupidity and vice among France's leaders and better-off.)
The TARGET of the best satire (i.e., the satire most _practical_, most helpful for a society, as well as the most clever, comic, entertaining, and most requiring courage) will be powerful people whose detrimental behavior and policies, while tolerated of course by their own class, by their beneficiaries, and by the unthinking masses, are slowly destroying the community. The powerless and downtrodden, whatever their acknowledged vices, because they are not in a position to so flagrantly harm the rest of us, are less worthy targets for the satirist who understands his/her calling. Nor does one risk much by attacking the powerless.
The satirist who goes after the mighty will need quite a bit more courage than the one who targets the marginalized, the minority, the "Other." There have been, however, satirists who have taken this latter group as their prey. This was done, for example, in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Images of Jews as dark, big-nosed monsters raking in piles of cash were popular, thanks to the artful work of fascist satirists. Arguably these images were necessary for producing the Holocaust. Derogatory images of African Americans were common in the United States; derogatory jokes about black people were common coin -- and challenged (as I recall from personal experience) only at some risk. Whether these qualify as "free speech" or not, their status as such went wholly unchallenged. These images enjoyed great popularity. Until recently the "n-word" was pronounced in its complete form without censorship -- arguably a form of mini-satire. These cultural devices were essential in sustaining an unrivaled, dominant, deep-rooted system of racial injustice for more than a century as part of the normal order of things. (As former Defense Secretary Zbigniew Brzezinski noted last night on MSNBC, a cartoon is often a means of maintaining or changing a society's very basis -- "a cartoon is a weapon.")
While admiring the creativity and sanguine social effect of one class of satire, we need to acknowledge that satirical attacks not on the powerful group (the group like "us") but on "the Other" have thrived in the past and can re-emerge any time in some form. The question now is whether we need to distinguish between these two kinds of satire, each with its distinct target-group. Can we call the satire that holds an unjust system in place the thing it is? Or shall we join most of our tv commentators and grant the status of "healthy, courageous, clever" satire to the cartoons offered by Charlie Hebdo -- for in France today, Charlie's satirists have chosen as their target the counterpart to these denigrated "Others" in Germany and in the United States: They have decided to lampoon France's Muslim minority (about 8% of France's population), feared and resented, ghetto-ized, branded as "Other." (Of course being subject to these offenses does not justify terrorism as a response. The fact that some very few of these have responded with acts of terrorism does not alter the fact that France has long been a fiercely divided society.) Or rather, the figure Charlie has chosen as target for its "fearlessly" contemptuous cartoons (and has thereby developed an approving constituency of readers) is a figure deeply revered and honored by French citizens who happen to be Muslims and by all other Muslims: the Prophet Mohamed. And we must notice what Charlie has done with this immensely important figure.
In addition to the matter of target, there is another characteristic of great satire to be found in Moliere's and Daumier's work: Their satire focuses on actual traits of its target -- traits that are at least arguably existent in the targeted figure and harmful to the society unless checked. Great satire does not lie or fantasize. The satire of Moliere and Daumier conveys truth; it points to the actual, existent traits and behavior of the Great Ones of their societies. Louis Philippe was by most historians' estimations an inept ruler; the corruption of French attorneys and public officials was not dreamed up; there were in Moliere's 17th-century France actual misers, flesh-and-blood human beings who indeed stunted their own lives and abused others to collect their piles of beloved francs; neither Moliere nor Daumier conjured up groundless libels against their targets or just delighted in making embarrassing images of them; in order to warn their readers of actual dangers to the common good, they presented these dangers -- though exaggerated and otherwise made striking -- in the horrible but actual form in which they existed at the top of their societies.
In comparison, what actual tendencies in the character of the Prophet have Charlie's cartoonists courageously exposed for critique? I find them vulgar and disgusting -- almost as disgusting as the claim resounding now through our media that these are great examples of courageous, hard-hitting satire requiring respect and protection as "free speech" regardless of their admittedly "harsh" content. ("Offensive speech is indeed the speech that must be defended from censorship," it is argued. "Non-offensive speech needs no such defense; hence the offensive cartoons Charlie has offered demand -- all the more because of their offensiveness -- our respect under our ideal of freedom of speech.")
One of these cartoons shows the Prophet Mohamed holding a copy of the Koran. Bullets are whizzing toward him. They rip through the Koran and strike his chest. In Mohamed's speech-bubble: "The Koran is shit! It won't stop a bullet!" A second one: Mohamed is naked, on his elbows and knees, seen from behind, his genitalia exposed. From his anus protrudes a star. The caption reads: "A star is born." Other examples abound for your delectation on the web.
I'd say these cartoons fail the test of good satire because they show nothing about any supposed vices of Mohamed that the society needs to discern -- in fact, they reveal nothing whatever about Mohamed (peace be upon him). They fail also because they do not attack the powerful; instead they unflinchingly stage their frank attacks upon an underdog. (So far as I know, French Muslims own no satirical journal of their own in which they could have answered Charlie's contempt.) Charlie's cartoons contribute to their audience's ready tendency to regard Muslims as "Other." I'd go further and say that they belong in the same category with the fascist images of Jews in 1920s and 1930s Germany and the caricatures and jokes that for so long helped to uphold our own racist system.
We should note that a common qualification against unrestrained commitment to the ideal of "free speech" is: One is not free to arbitrarily, without cause, shout "Fire!" in a crowed theatre. The context for satire (like any "free speech") is a prime consideration: Who's listening; what are the likely consequences? Given the context of long-term, accepted (nearly universally condoned) divisions between Musliims and non-Muslims in French society, offering a set of images that deepens and further normalizes those divisions requires no courage at all; nor does it provide what great satire provides: a striking look at an overlooked, pernicious flaw in the society. Rather than showing courage, these images have the advantage of finding a ready-prepared field available into which they can easily fit, where they can further entrench the already-existing social divisions. They do not challenge the status quo; they enhance it. I'd like to believe their creators met with at least a modicum of criticism from the French people, but I have not done the necessary research to determine this.
The situation is complicated by the fact that these vulgarities have prompted the murder of more than ten people. While mourning the loss of life, we have to grant both the murders and the cartoons our contempt. The situation in France, like that in the United States (if we consider only what has happened to our black citizens at the hands of those appointed "to serve and protect") requires from majority citizens deep compassion, courageous investigation, profound repentance, hard work for reconciliation.
Je vous prie de vouloir m'excuser, mes chers amis. Mais je ne suis pas Charlie.