I won’t rehearse the details of last Wednesday’s attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo, a Parisian satire magazine.  Those anyone can find with a Google search.  I do write, however, because I’m not sure how to think about many public figures’ reaction to the events, which have become a rallying cry for free speech, free press, and the legal rights to print whatever one sees fit.

First, I haven’t gone searching in every corner of the Internet, but so far, just casually browsing, I haven’t seen anyone supporting what happened Wednesday.  Just about everyone agrees that such an act of murder is nothing other than a crime, and the proper response for the public is to treat the act not as war but as murder.

But that’s not where some folks are stopping.  I’ve seen a fair number of folks identify this crime as a “natural” outworking of Islam, pitting secular “us” against theocratic “them.”  What I’ve not seen is much discussion about the fact that the cartoonists were publishing cartoons attacking revered religious figures of ethnic minorities.  My hunch is that even bringing up that reality would immediately brand the questioner as an enemy of free speech and liberalism.  (I understand that I’m in danger of the same.)

But this counter-factual occurred to me as I rolled these things over in my head: suppose a cartoonist, on Monday, when the United States is celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., published a cartoon depicting King in an orgy with four, visibly underage Chinese girls, while cracking wise that “I had me a dream about some Mushu Pork!”  Suppose the cartoon played up all of the worst visual tropes that racist cartoonists use to portray Black people as simian and otherwise bestial.  And suppose that a Black person went to the St. Louis office of that cartoonist on Tuesday and shot him.

In that scenario, would I regard the shooting as a murder?  Yes.  Would I think of the police’s actions to apprehend the shooter as justified?  Yes.  If the shooter resisted, would the police be justified in meeting armed resistance with armed force? Possibly.  If the police took the shooter alive, would I think that the District Attorney’s decision to prosecute the case as a murder justified?  Yes.

But would I join a march saying that I’m “with” that cartoonist?  No.  Would I hold a sign that says I “am” that cartoonist?  No.  Would I regard the cartoonist as a martyr?  No.  And would I consider the shooter representative of all those who regard MLK as an important figure in American Christianity?  No.

Ultimately I don’t think that violent retaliation against anti-minority humor is ever good, but I also can’t ignore the fact that the victims of the crime (and that’s all I can call these cartoonists, not martyrs or heroes) made their living by “punching down,” using humor to keep minorities marginal.  In the end, I regard Wednesday’s attacks as a violent crime and thus worth mourning but not much else: not a clash of civilizations and certainly not a proud moment when evil attacked good in some simple way.

Perhaps this means that I’m not a free-speech absolutist, and I think I’m alright with that.

Anyway, this is more of an inquiry than an argument at this point.  What do you make of the public reaction to Wednesday’s crimes, and where do you think I’m getting things wrong?

6 thoughts on “I’m not Charlie, and I’m not Sure I Aspire to Be”
  1. It doesn’t make much
    sense to say the cartoonists were using humor to keep minorities
    marginal if you take a look at the many abhorrent jokes they made
    about Christianity, Catholicism in particular (think the Holy Trinity
    in sodomy, Cardinals in the same act, mocking the Virgin Mary, etc.),
    the majority’s religion—and, I would suspect, the religion of the so
    feared ultra right.

  2. frater As you’re framing it, could the same publication be guilty both of anti-minority humor and anti-Catholic humor, or can one publication only be guilty of one but not the other?

  3. I certainly hadn’t been following Charlie Hebdo before last week, but I think a lot of their lionization in the public mind is due to their having been firebombed a few years ago and not being cowed.  This wasn’t an abstract threat for them.  

    In that light, I’m inclined to agree with Ross Douthat.  http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/the-blasphemy-we-need/?_r=0

  4. We had a short discussion a while back about satire and how I’ve come to believe that it inherently gives expression to (or at least tends toward) a dehumanizing nastiness that distorts far more than it enlightens.  I’m not Charlie, either.

  5. ngilmour frater 

    Well, this could be
    the case, though it makes much more sense to imagine their
    motivations were not anti-minority but anti-religious in general—as
    a matter of fact I’ve seen the chief editor commenting, when alive,
    that the sort of people who would kill for a cartoon are ‘radicals’,
    thus bringing that old distinction between good and bad muslims, so
    its becomes even harder to imagine that they were moved by ethnic
    hatred or something similar (and keep in mind that this magazine once
    tried to dissolve the Front National, so there’s that also).

  6. <a href=”http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/jan/09/joe-sacco-on-satire-a-response-to-the-attacks”>Joe Sacco’s cartoon</a> mines a similar line of thought:

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