Civil Liberties

'Je suis Charlie'? No, You're Not, or Else You Might Be Dead


One of the spontaneous social-media reactions to the Charlie Hebdo massacre today was the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie ("I am Charlie"). It's an admirable sentiment, resonant with the classic post-9/11 Le Monde cover "Nous sommes tous Americains." It's also totally inaccurate.

If we—all of us, any of us—were Charlie Hebdo, here are some of the things that we might do:

* Not just print original satirical cartoons taking the piss out of Islamic-terrorist sensibilities, but do so six days after you were firebombed for taking the piss out of Islamic-terrorist sensibilities (pictured), and do so in such a way that's genuinely funny (IMO) and even touching, with the message "Love is stronger than hate."

* Not just print original cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—a historical figure, lest we forget—but then defending and winning the right to do so after being charged with offensive speech.

* Not just survive such crucibles, but stubbornly resist letting them consume your very being, either by becoming an anti-Islamist obsessive, or a semi-apologetic convert (remember: even the unfathomably brave Salman Rushdie converted to Islam for a while there), or disappearing yourself in the witness protection program, a la the Seattle alt-weekly cartoonist Molly NorrisCharlie Hebdo kept being what it has always been—a satirical, juvenile, and funny check on power and authority and pomposity of all stripes. Do a Google Image search on "Charlie Hebdo" and "Jesus," and then ask yourself which media entity in this Culture-War-scarred country, with its stronger free-speech protections, would have the courage and latitude to blaspheme both major religions.

Look at the cover of this recent Charlie Hebdo collection, which sits proudly on my desk: Those aren't the heads of ancient religions, those are heads of the French state, dressed up like gangsters. The newspaper didn't just run cartoons, it blasted authority and piety of all stripes, beginning with the pompous asses who tend to run France, and the equally pompous (but more subservient) hacks in the national press. The paper actually got its start in 1970 when another satirical publication was shuttered for its disrespect at the funeral of Charles De Gaulle. It frequently published stuff that most journalists know, but are too afraid to stand by.

The cartoonists who were killed today—Wolinski, Cabu, Tignous, Charb—were some of the most beloved figures in modern French life. Contra some of the nonsense being mouthed today by fools on Twitter, these weren't some kind of Andrew Dice Clay acts looking for ever-more vulnerable minorities to kick; Cabu, for instance, is most famous for creating the provincial, typical-French character Mon Beauf, who he mocks for being crude and bigoted toward minorities. My French father-in-law, whose Gaullist-flavored politics were certainly satirized by Cabu over the years, said that today felt like being stabbed in the heart.

So no, we're all not Charlie—few of us are that good, and none of us are that brave. If more of us were brave, and refused to yield to the bomber's veto, and maybe reacted to these eternally recurring moments not by, say, deleting all your previously published Muhammad images, as the Associated Press is reportedly doing today, but rather by routinely posting newsworthy images in service both to readers and the commitment to a diverse and diffuse marketplace of speech, then just maybe Charlie Hebdo wouldn't have stuck out so much like a sore thumb. It's harder, and ultimately less rewarding to the fanatical mind, to hit a thousand small targets than one large one.

And it's not just those of us in the media business who have failed to be Charlie Hebdo. Every person in the broader West, whether it be a Financial Times editor or the president of the United States, who wrongly thinks that speech should not offend, and falsely believes that artistic commentary can somehow incite murderous violence, are also contributing to an ever-worsening cultural climate of speech, and therefore freedom.

Today is an awful day for the basic project of free inquiry. Do you really wanna be Charlie Hebdo? Then get on out there, live and speak bravely. And God help you.