Charlie Hebdo
January 2015
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Charlie Hebdo

by Jonathan Wallace

OK, I just took a look at a variety of Charlie Hebdo covers and cartoons, found some mildly amusing, and concluded that Charlie Hebdo equally distributed its sarcasm; I saw covers lampooning the Pope and Elie Wiesel as well as Islam. There was a tendency towards asinine humor involving homosexuality not as the target but as the means of insult: Muhammed making out with a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, a Jew kissing a Nazi and so forth.

There is a place for Charlie Hebdo; the work is clearly protected under the First Amendment ruleset, and all other Enlightenment-based rulesets would, if uneasily, protect it too, along with the more scatological efforts of Rabelais, Voltaire, Jean Genet, and R. Crumb, whose style Charlie Hebdo particularly resembles. R. Crumb too specialized in cliches, women with big boobs and fakirs in turbans.

However, we don’t live in a perfect Enlightenment society, far from it, and there are some other considerations, subtexts to the story, that aren’t getting attention. First of all, it isn’t quite really a free speech narrative the way its being presented; free speech rulesets such as the First Amendment protect us, not against crazy armed individuals, or even against foreign governments, but against governments which have jurisdiction over us, in other words, our own. Iran or the Anti-Defamation League can’t violate my First Amendment rights; only the U.S. can do that.

The right of free speech which is so vaguely invoked in connection with the Charlie Hebdo murders is actually a right to taunt homicidal armed men until they kill you. I suppose each of us has a right to do that, but who would want to? It seems to indicate a certain lack of judgment. You have a perfect First Amendment right to shadow John Gotti, carrying a sign announcing that he is a fat, smelly pedophile, but if some big bodyguard hits you with a two by four and throws you in a trunk, he may have illegally murdered you but he didn’t actually violate your right of free speech.

When people wear buttons or carry signs that say “Je Suis Charlie”, I don’t really know how to interpret it. Are they maintaining that, in a perfect world, we could taunt anyone and get away with it? OK, I buy that, but it seems so self evident its not worthy of a sign. Are they saying, “I too taunt homicidal men”? I don’t think so. In the end, “Je Suis Charlie” is a moving statement which, when you parse it, has very little content.

Unlike the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, I am protected by obscurity, but even I make choices as to what I say based on the proposition that you can’t fight every battle that comes your way. I have veered away from concentrating on certain targets whom I know to be highly litigious and yet extremely marginal to my concerns. Even in a world of perfect protection from government oppression, we still would make choices to avoid social consequences.

I don’t think the world would have been a worse place if the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had exercised a little more self restraint (you can call it self censorship). I have other reasons why. Three cops died for them, and four civilians, who had nothing to do with the cartoons. You can decide to risk your own life taunting the homicidal, but do you have any right to risk the life of others? Also, once we characterize this as a free speech problem, it is easy to assume that government should intervene to protect the speaker. The Charlie Hebdo editor had a police bodyguard, who was the first to die. The government of Britain spent millions hiding and protecting Salman Rushdie. What we don’t see when we consider this is that such protection is based on disguised concepts of class superiority. We don’t assign a police bodyguard to the battered women whose exes ignore protective orders and kill them every week. We fulfill our democratic responsibilities by doing our best to prosecute the killers. One thing you learn as a grown up in America is that law enforcement rarely can play any kind of a preventive role where individuals are concerned; it only deploys investigation teams to the scenes of their murder. What is so special about Rushdie or the Charlie Hebdo editor that earns them protection at government expense? There are a limited number of possible explanations. One, we see them as special and worthy of protection while you aren’t. Secondly, protecting them fits into some kind of government narrative which may have very little to do with the Enlightenment or free speech. Of course, both things can be true at once.

There’s another angle. The people who killed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not emissaries of any foreign government; they came from a French underclass, a marginalized, unhappy, angry population. “Je Suis Charlie” also indicates we are completely comfortable taunting those people. It is hard to imagine many of the “Je Suis Charlie” people ever wearing a “Je Suis Rush” or “Je Suis Le Pen” button, but the line dividing Charlie Hebdo from them is very hard to draw. There is this idea out there that, because they were cartoonists, they must be liberal, Voltairean, whatever, but their black people are Aunt Jemima and Little Black Sambo, their Jews could be lifted from Nazi propaganda, and their images of Moslems are equally hateful. They claimed to be satirizing racism, but that’s a little subtle for me.

The likely result of the world wide “Je Suis Charlie” movement? More drone strikes killing wedding parties, village elders, schoolchildren. In the end, that was probably the narrative that made Charlie Hebdo interesting to power.