Am I Charlie? Or am I just paying lip service?

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“The Untouchables 2” – You mustn’t mock us!

In light of the recent tragedy in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a discussion sprung up on Facebook when a friend of mine, in reference to this article at the Daily Beast, asked the question, “where does humour cross the line into something rather ugly, threatening and repellent?”

I commented as below:

In some ways, Charlie Hebdo is the Westboro Baptist Church of the literary world. It’s a partially flawed analogy because WBC produces nothing positive whatsoever except hatred and misery, while Charlie Hebdo satirizes many things that deserve satire. Are they offensive? Absolutely… but then so is South Park, which show is afraid to pillory nothing. Mad and Cracked back in the 60s and 70s were very similar [1]; the French outfit simply doesn’t have the same restraints on them as American television or magazines, so they’re free to add all the crude sexual [and religious and political and social] humor they want. It may be this “crossing of the line” that some people find so offensive rather than the actual satire itself.

Nonetheless, the same principles of free speech apply here:

1) You’re free to say and publish what you want, and the government can’t come after you for it.
2) You are *not* free from the consequences of your speech.

In this sense, I agree with the thesis of the article. Charlie can be pretty nasty; just look at the comments of Dutch cartoonist Bernard Holtrop (Willem):

“We have a lot of new friends, like the pope, Queen Elizabeth and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. It really makes me laugh,” Bernard Holtrop, whose pen name is Willem, told the Dutch centre-left daily Volkskrant.

“Marine Le Pen is delighted when the Islamists start shooting all over the place,” said Willem, 73, a longtime Paris resident who also draws for the French leftist daily Liberation.

He added: “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”

The authors and cartoonists who work at Charlie Hebdo are not necessarily nice people, but they know who they are and they know the risks they are taking by being deliberately offensive. Unfortunately, this week some of them paid the price for taking those risks. This is sad, and unconscionable, and they didn’t deserve to die… but in the grand scheme of things this was not totally surprising.

I remember buying some of the first editions of Charlie when I was living in Italy in 1970. There was a parallel publication in Italian called, interestingly, “Linus.” I now wish I still had them – they’d be worth quite a bit.

As part of the discussion, another member of our community indicated she could identify with Willem’s disgust, citing the world leaders who are marching in Paris while pursuing national policies of destruction and/or oppression. And that’s a valid debate. I replied,

It is another debate entirely, and one that needs to continue. There are many who see the outpouring of support for Charlie as a good thing, others see it as superficial lip-service. And certainly, In that crowd of thousands marching in Paris, you would find thousands of reasons for being there.

In this particular case, I see Willem’s reaction (and those of many, many others in the blogosphere) as a confirmation of the axiom that reality is perception. We see things not as they are, but as we are.

Charlie Hebdo in many ways crosses the boundaries of responsible journalism into the realm of “we’re going to be assholes  just because we can.” And while that aspect of satirical organs is repugnant to many, even those not the targets of their caustic commentary, it is and must remain protected – because if you shut them down, where does the censorship stop?

What happened in Paris is a tragedy of immense significance, and it has ignited a vigorous debate on the nature and aims of the Islamic extremist movement. In these attacks some have seen more than just revenge for offensive cartoons; journalists and analysts all over the world have chimed in suggesting that the true motive was to actually inflame hatred for Islam, making it easier for the terrorist groups to recruit the uneducated and the ideologically susceptible.

In the end, Charlie Hebdo is a pretty lowbrow publication, but I will defend to the death their right to be that way (as Voltaire’s biographer stated, although not Voltaire himself) – because if I don’t, it clears the pathway to the censorship of all writing, including my own, just because it happens to offend somebody, somewhere. And by the same token, I’m free to read it or not read it, and free to choose whether or not I will be offended.

So, yes. As Albert Uderzo so elegantly said by coming out of retirement:

asterix-jesuischarlie

“I’m Charlie too.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] Check out this tasteful ad for a revival of Disney’s Snow White from Mad’s December, 1970 issue:

snow

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2 responses to “Am I Charlie? Or am I just paying lip service?

  1. The publications were intentionally named Charlie and Linus after the Peanuts characters. I haven’t found whether Schulz liked it. I did find he did not like his strip being named Peanuts.

    • I suspect I may have had Issue No. 1 of both publications. I wish I still did. They were adorned with the Peanuts characters, respectively. They were both pretty irreverent, even back then.

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