Je Suis Charlie: My Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Charlie Hebdo never published an image more offensive to Islam than this one is to Christianity. (As offensive, sure.) And this irreverent jab at Christianity isn’t an isolated incident — the cover of their Christmas issue a few weeks ago has Jesus popping out of the Virgin Mary’s vagina, under the caption “The True Story of the Baby Jesus.”
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It seems pretty clear to me from these and many other examples that Charlie Hebdo treats radical Muslims the same as Christians and everyone else — with scorn, mockery and provocation. You’re not racist if you treat everybody the same.
If Charlie Hebdo is no more offensive to Muslims than to anybody else, the argument against the publication becomes: “You shouldn’t criticize Muslims because they take offense easily.” That argument is B.S. First, because a lot of Muslims aren’t particularly offended — they just roll their eyes like you do when you see the buttfucking Trinity. Second, because sometimes people who can’t take criticism (I’m talking only about Muslim extremists now) are EXACTLY the people who need to be criticized the most.

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.

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 (“Love: Stronger Than Hate”)

2014: YEAR IN REVIEW

Here it is: my 14th annual Year in Review blog post! I’ve written one of these things on New Year’s Eve (or thereabouts) every year since 2001. Some years, it seemed like I was almost in the same place when the year ended as when it began. This is not one of those years!

– As the year started, I was beginning my 12th year of living in New York City, and my 8th year working at Dancing Classrooms — although I had cut down my hours to 25 a week so I’d have more time to write. I was working on Obscenity (as always) and listening to podcasts about TV writing — I had decided not to pursue screenwriting years ago, but writing Rocket had been such a great experience I was changing my mindBesides that, Caroline and I were basically wiling away the winter by finishing our Buffy, Angel and Dollhouse marathon.

– Entered the TV writing fellowships and several screenwriting competitions with my writing partner Teresa, using our first pilot script Rocket, as well as a spec script for Elementary, the CBS Sherlock Holmes series. In the end, we didn’t get any of them, but we did get some very encouraging feedback from some professional writers in Hollywood, and from one of the contests. This made me start to think about moving to LA to really try to start a career in TV.

– At the end of April, I was laid off from my job, which I knew was coming. One less tie to New York.

– At the beginning of May, to celebrate my new freedom, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for several years — take a week-long hike on the Appalachian Trail. I walked for nine days, starting at the Massachusetts/Vermont border and walking south, crossing Massachusetts and most of Connecticut before exhaustion set in and I hitched a ride to the Metro North. As I headed south, I got to watch winter change into spring. I walked 120 miles.

– In June, I traveled to LA for two weeks so Teresa and I could plot our next moves. We outlined a draft of our second pilot script, Penitent, did research for a spec script for the following year’s fellowships, hatched a plan for our third pilot, Bordertown, and met with a TV writer about Rocket and how to break into the business. Got to know LA much better, and finally decided to give the move a shot.

– Enjoyed one last New York summer. Many walks in the park. A wonderful beach trip with Caroline, Liz and Talitha. Bob Ross painting party. A couple lousy temp jobs.

– Visited my mom in Suttons Bay in July with Caroline and her parents, David and Alice. This was the first meeting of the parents and it went wonderfully. We went to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, sampled the local wine (it gets better every year), hit the beach, worked on a puzzle, and caught a performance of Brahms’s 4th Symphony at Interlochen. The Traverse City are in the summer time gives Michigan a good name!

– In August, I went for a hike with Ryan and his brother Trevor to do the 107-mile section of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. Rain on the first few days caused a lot of blisters, but afterward the park became absolutely beautiful. Extraordinary views from the Blue Ridge! We saw a black bear and a buck up close. We had some delicious blackberry ice cream at the many waysides — this is the way to hike! It brought my final number of AT miles in the last 3 years to nearly five hundred (493 miles, 227 of them in 2014).

– I spent the last few weeks of August culling the stuff I had accumulated in three years of living with Liz. I sold books and furniture, threw out bags and bags of garbage, and put the rest of my stuff into storage. After a few last weeks, in which I stayed with Caroline, I said some tearful goodbyes, and headed to LA.

– I drove with my dad from New York to Michigan, where I acquired my mom’s old car for the cost of the trade-in. We drove west across the northern part of the country, visiting eight states I’d never been to before in the process: Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. We stopped at Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore, Bozeman (where we were hosted by Dana and Justin), Yellowstone, Salt Lake City (briefly), Arches National Park (where we camped for a whole day and explored one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen on foot), and Las Vegas (which was depressing).

– Caroline sent one of her stuffed bunnies, Bunny Number Three, to share my adventure in LA. As a joke, I created a Twitter account, @BunnyThree, so Bunny could share his impressions of the trip and living in California. I might be an Internet naïf, but I was amazed when Bunny attracted a small following of strangers. Twitter! *shakes head* 🙂

– Arrived in Los Angeles on October 2. I was very lucky to get an apartment with one of Teresa’s friends, Priscilla, on the border of Hollywood and Los Feliz (no one seems to agree which neighborhood it’s actually in). Joined a writing group with some new friends — Peter, Alex, Hayden, Dianne, and others. Started attending a French discussion group in Century City parce que le français me manque, il fait trop longtemps que je ne le parle pas; also attended a Sunday free writing group led by Ivan, and tried a few hiking groups though nothing struck. Went on a number of hikes in Griffith Park, alone or with Julie, started an LA newbies “support group” with Jenny, went to DW screening at District Pub, found a part-time job as a personal assistant.

– In less than a month, Teresa and I wrote a draft of our second pilot, Penitent, nearly from scratch (we had tried a draft over the summer but only come up with a few worthwhile scenes). We workshopped it with our group in December and were very encouraged.

– Threw a surprise birthday party for Caroline at Bareburger in New York, then spent Thanksgiving at her parent’s house in DC. My mom and Aunt Mary also attended. The families officially melded this year.

– In December, Teresa and I created and outlined our third original script, Bordertown, and began writing the first draft.

– After another brief trip to New York to get my stuff out of storage and send it to LA, I went home to Michigan for the holidays. I spent Christmas with my dad and Kris (for the first time in years), then headed up to Suttons Bay to spend New Year’s with my mom, Aunt Mary and cousin Erik.

New Year’s Resolutions: Nothing major. Work really hard, try not to become too boring. Work towards becoming a professional writer each day, drink less diet cola, get a little more exercise, maybe some bigger hikes and not just Griffith Park over and over. Basically, just continue in the direction things are heading right now, because I think it’s a good one.

On Moving to LA

About two years ago, while I was doing some historical research for my novel Obscenity (coming to a bookstore near you in 2019, give or take!), I happened on an idea I thought would make a good TV series.  I called up my friend Teresa in LA and asked her if she wanted to collaborate.  We wrote the thing, it turned out great, and by the time it was done, I was shocked to discover I had embarked on a career as a TV writer.  Some prominent people read our pilot (I can’t name names), they said encouraging things, we wrote a spec script for Elementary, applied for some fellowships, wrote another pilot, and it became inescapable — this couldn’t go anywhere unless I was willing to move to Los Angeles.  And I wanted it to go somewhere.

Leaving New York is exceedingly hard.  It isn’t only the friends I’m leaving behind.  It isn’t even the fact that I’m leaving my girlfriend behind (at least for the time being), although that is extremely hard.  The fact is I’ve lived in New York for twelve years and I love it here.  There’s no place like it.  Unfortunately, I feel like it’s become a dead end for me.  I’ve enjoyed my life here but I feel like sometime — around 2008, 2009 — I stopped moving forward with my life.  And I know that, sooner than I think, it will be too late to remedy that, and I’ll just have to regret it forever.

And so, Los Angeles!  It’s exciting.  It’s a lovely adventure.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ve liked almost everyone I’ve met there and that it’s a guaranteed sunny winter.  It’s nice to shake up your life every once in awhile, and it’s nice to think that you’re taking a step towards doing something for a living that is important to you, something that you love doing, and somethng that, when you’re not being modest, you have to admit you think you’re incredibly good at.

To be clear, I’m just taking the West Coast for a test drive.  I’ve gotten too old and too cautious to jump into things head first like I used to.  But I hope that in six months I’ll decide it’s going well and I want to make it permanent.  Then there will be a lot of details to work out — a lot of people I’m leaving behind right now that I’ll want to find a way to keep in my life.

And to be honest, one in particular.

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But with all this optimism about the prospect of a move, I still believe that New York is always going to be part of my life.  I plan to be back, and not just for a visit.  There are a lot of good reasons to leave it behind right now, but there’s NO good reason to leave it behind forever.

One of Those Days

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you are a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

-Colette

Today is Colette’s birthday, so I guess it’s appropriate that it was one of those days today. I got to the climax of a story and realized that what I had done up to that point didn’t have the emotional power to make the climax work. So I spent the day starting a plan to re-write the earlier parts of the story to make the climax feel earned.

2013: Year in Review

– For Liz’s birthday present, she and I took a trip to Gulfport, on Tampa Bay, to visit Donna — someone I’ve always thought Liz should meet. We saw the sights and ate great food, and I got to hear a set of stories I had never heard Donna tell as some intergenerational wisdom was shared.

– Had my first anniversary date with Caroline. To celebrate, we recreated our first date. It had been a quick year since Caroline was in Philadelphia doing a fellowship at an art school.

– Visited Teresa in LA, my first trip to southern California. I always thought I would hate it there because people generally seem to, but as it turned out it was pretty great. Besides a bit of tourism, Teresa and I used the opportunity to outline the pilot episode for the TV show we had talked about doing for a writing sample (which we would later title Rocket).

– Made the decision in about March or April to stay at Dancing Classrooms, my day job since 2007, only through the end of summer, giving me time to use up my vacation time, then leave to find part time work that would give me time to write more. It was a very scary decision but I was having so much fun working on Rocket, my forst new project after working on Obscenity for two years, that I knew it was finally time to give up some comforts to devote more time to writing.

– At the end of May, Caroline’s lease in Philadelphia ended and, very happily, I helped her move to New York. She lived with Liz and me throughout June while finding an apartment, then moved in to her own place a few blocks from mine, and WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS how happy I’ve been about it ever since. Since then, we have spent innumerable hours just hanging around, doing nothing much, and it has been the best part of the year.

– The worst part of the year was the death of my grandfather on July 1. Caroline and I had already planned a trip to Michigan and we got there just soon enough for me to read Papa a story, “The Big Two- Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway, the day before he died. When I heard the news that he had passed away, I was at Pyramid Point with Aunt Mary, my cousin Erik, and Caroline. Preparations for the funeral basically took over the trip after that, but we did manage to get away for a few days to visit my dad and Kris in western Michigan, and go to a water park.

– Sadly, my grandfather’s death wasn’t the only death of the summer. A good friend’s husband committed suicide a few days later, and my very first friend from childhood was found dead in a park in East Lansing.

– Read the complete Sherlock Holmes in a marathon of summer reading.

– Continued my hobby of Appalachian Trail hiking. Early in the year I finished up the last little bit of New Jersey I hadn’t done, and on Labor Day, I went on a 60-mile hike in northern Virginia with Ryan.

– One week before my full-time job at Dancing Classrooms was supposed to end, my boss offered me the option to stay on part-time. I began a 25-hour-a-week schedule which allowed me time for 3 hours of writing a day. I managed to stick to that schedule for about a month and a half, which was a hell of a lot of work. I’ve been forced to cut back due to fatigue and seasonal crankiness, but I am still managing to be quite productive. The three main projects so far have been Obscenity, Rocket and The Adventures of Moriarty.

– Carsen visited to celebrate our friend Ruthie’s birthday. We also tried to hike the Long Path between Harriman State Park and New York City, but we only finished part of it.

– Many hours of blissful hanging out with Caroline — played with Raaarr and Bunnies, watched a ton of Buffy, induced vomiting in everyone around us.

– Teresa visited New York with her boyfriend Adam, giving us a chance to hang out and also finish our first draft of Rocket. The second draft is nearing completion now.

– Thanksgiving with Caroline’s family in Virginia. Was introduced to P. D. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster (the TV version, then the actual stories).

– Christmas with Donna, Caroline and my mom back in Gulfport, Florida. I imposed on Donna’s hospitality for a much-needed week and a half in the sun.

– Spent New Year’s at the apartment with Caroline, Liz and Talitha watching The Princess Bride.