On the subway lately, I had crossed paths with folks just recently come from a sympathetic rally in support of France after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. A mother and her daughter were carrying black placards upon which the phrase “We Are Charlie” was printed in white.
Are we Charlie?
The first comparisons I suspect New Yorkers would make concerning the likes of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo (ie, “Charia Hebdo,” ie “Sharia Law”) would be our most famed satirists such as Jon Stewart, or our editorial cartoonists such as Jeff Danzinger: Indeed, the ability to lampoon those in power through humor is one of the most hallowed traditions of what we consider a free society.
That said, upon further review, the comparison felt a bit off to me. When I open gocomics.com or thedailyshow.com and the like, the targets generally tend to be politicians, members of the mainstream media, corporate flacks and general machers of state and industry. When I watch comedians tear into society they tend to go after fissures laid bare through power dynamics. To me, satire has always been inextricable from speaking truth to power: Jonathan Swift may have flacked for the Tories, but we remember him most for using his words to excoriate the ruling British.
I’m not terribly certain I can use the term “satire” for what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did. Their primary target was an entire religion. A comparison may be made to the likes of Bill Maher, who regularly mocks militant religious extremists, but his schtick was ultimately aimed at what he saw as the common problem of all religion, and to that end he directed his ire to their power structures. Jon Stewart satirized the powerful. Charlie Hebdo calumniated an entire people.
It goes without saying that nothing deserves such a craven, vicious attack as what the offices of Charlie Hebdo received, and it also goes without saying that whatever message the terrorists have tried to impart was most certainly lost through their actions, but it’s difficult for me to look at France’s colonial past and their current treatment of Muslim citizens and immigrants and not see a pattern of humiliation and deprivation that exacerbates the social rift that French pundits commonly rail against when they speak of assimilation.
Tastelessness is not illegal, of course, and if anybody can be said to embody the liberal principles of French society, it would be that of officer Ahmed Merabet, who died protecting a paper that regularly trashed his faith. However, tastelessness is tasteless, and while it is a common comedic element to use shocking and tasteless material in service of a greater point, it is another thing entirely to use shocking and tasteless material in service of shocking and tasteless points.
And indeed, while it is one thing to speak for the freedom of speech upon which our liberal societies are based, it is another to use such an attack to lionize such voices to further more calumnies. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Muslims in France before, and it’s going to get a lot harder for them after – and who exactly is to blame for that, really?