I’ve spent a lot of time the last few days reading about the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Since I speak French and briefly lived in France, I’ve read Charlie Hebdo on occasion (not often). I remember when they were criticized for publishing cartoons of Mohammed, I remember when they were firebombed in 2011, and I was shocked-but-not-surprised when they were attacked two days ago. This morning (France is nine hours ahead of me), I woke up in time to follow double siege in Dammartin-en-Goële and Porte de Vincennes and the simultaneous police raids that lead to the deaths of the suspects. For a while I was reading live newsfeeds from Le Monde, New York Times, BFMTV, Sky News, CNN and Twitter all at once. I was going a little crazy, I admit. I definitely contributed to making #JeSuisCharlie the most tweeted hashtag of all time, I’m afraid.
So I was pretty offended when I read a NY Times article called “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” where opinion columnist/conservative windbag David Brooks kinda-sorta blamed the victim by saying Charlie Hebdo’s humor is juvenile and irresponsible, and we shouldn’t support them so unquestioningly. A Facebook friend (who was only starting a conversation) posted articles by The Daily Beast and Hooded Utilitarian that make similar arguments. Later in the day, I had a Twitter fight with Joyce Carol Oates and the playwright Dan Therriault (mostly the latter, JCO just retweeted him) about whether Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were the same as racist World War II caricatures of “Japs.”
All of these writers were careful to say they don’t condone the attack (except Therriault, who I’m sure would have if not for the 140-character limit). But, all the same, these arguments drive me ABSOLUTELY INSANE.
Charlie Hebdo reminds me of South Park. It’s crude, puerile, offensive, and often funny. And, occasionally, it’s profound, as in the case of this 2006 cartoon by Cabu, one of the victims of the attack. It comments on Muslim extremist threats against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published cartoons of Mohammed, by showing the Prophet, his head in his hands, saying, “It’s tough being loved by morons.”
This is a great cartoon. First off, it’s a huge “fuck you” to Muslim extremists and gesture of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, since it does the exact thing the Danish paper was threatened for — it depicts Mohammed, which conservative Muslims consider blasphemous in any context. Secondly, it implies that if Mohammed were alive today, he’d be aghast by what some of his followers do in his name. In so doing, it separates the actions of the extremists from the spirit and intent of Islam. Third, there’s a subtle joke thrown in: since Mohammed is hiding his face in his hands, does the cartoon actually depict him?
A documentary film crew captured the editorial meeting where this cartoon was created, and the New York Times posted the video on their site today. The video shows the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, including several of the cartoonists who were killed, waxing philosophical about why they criticize, and then working hard to find the exact message they want to send with their humor — something forthright that doesn’t stray too close to racism. This might be juvenile humor, but it’s being approached in a very adult way.
Which brings me back to the arguments that Charlie Hebdo‘s humor is racist, or irresponsible, or just bad.
Let’s start with racist. It’s no secret that France, like the rest of Europe, has a racism problem. Europeans are xenophobic and a lot of them aren’t happy that Arabs are immigrating to their countries. Considering that context, and the Islam-critical cartoons plastered over the Internet for the last few days, it would be easy to conclude Charlie Hebdo is racist… especially since the cartoons are in a different language, divorced from their original context, and humor doesn’t translate very well.
Since you’ve probably only seen Charlie Hebdo cartoons that criticize Islam, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re specifically singling out Muslims. But this newspaper treats EVERY subject this way. Let’s use Christianity as an example. When the Cardinal of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, spoke against gay marriage, Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon that said, “Monsignor Vingt-Trois Has Three Dads: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The picture showed God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit buttfucking each other.
The last argument that I think needs to be shot down is: “Charlie Hebdo is stupid, puerile humor and it just isn’t funny.” I hate this argument because what’s funny is subjective. And did I mention humor doesn’t translate well — certainly not well enough for David Brooks to set himself up as the arbiter of all things funny in France. Just because something is stupid and puerile and in horrible taste doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious. “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch” still makes me laugh 15 years after I first heard it. There’s a kind of humor in transgression.
You might not find transgressive humor particularly witty or clever, but it is necessary. Making scary, dangerous people look ridiculous is a powerful act. The editors of Charlie Hebdo knew they were running a terrible risk by making Islamic extremists look ridiculous, but they believed it needed to be done. They believed that so strongly that they risked their lives. They matched their pens and paper against Kalashnikovs so that people could laugh in the face of Al Qaeda and ISIS, some of the most frightening, most horrible people in the world. They gave their lives so we could do that.
Was that stupid, puerile and irresponsible?
No. It was an act of almost unbelievable courage.