The media solidarity for the victims of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is at the very least fraught with some obliviousness.
The cartoons mocking Muslims and the prophet Mohammed prompted two French-born Muslims to commit the bloodbath that killed 10 staffers, a police officer and a bodyguard. These caricatures were meant to be exceedingly offensive, and the publication’s leadership vowed to carry on after the offices were firebombed in 2011.
Much of what I’ve seen of Charlie Hebdo cartoons are in what I consider poor taste. In quite a few covers, the icons of multiple religions, including Christianity, are depicted as taking it in the behind, or shown in degrading post-coital positions.
This is not the satire of The Onion or the snark of Gawker, with their aura of cynical detachment and hip disillusion. Nor is this the satire of Jon Stewart, the poster boy of American liberals who think of themselves as sophisticates of the pop culture send-up.
The willfully pugnacious Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of searing French satire unfamiliar on these shores, “best seen as an anarchic publication, willing to tackle anything taboo.”
We in the West tout our love of a free press. But more mainstream outlets, in Europe and North America, refused to print the offensive cartoons to illustrate why some Muslim terrorists acted with rage. Some journalists even defended these actions with greater cowardice than not showing the cartoons. Others complained that Charlie Hebdo peddled racist ideas, and that there’s no defense for that.
In The New York Times, David Brooks argues that a student publication that dared to print Charlie Hebdo-style fare “wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds” at any American university, where speech codes are enforced with an iron fist.
Think about that for a minute: Two of the most liberal institutions in America, designed to promote free inquiry and expression, are among the most censorious entities we have. The gunmen who assassinated journalists in the broad daylight, in one of the most cultured, open cities of the world, thought Charlie Hebdo was full of hate speech, then undertook a brutal rite of censorship they made sure would never be forgotten.
No, we are not Charlie Hebdo, and the real effect of this terrorist act will be to move further away from what the magazine’s publisher, editor and cartoonists deeply embodied, as vulgar and offensive as their work often was. French novelist Michel Houellebecq, a master provocateur whose new book is about his country being ruled by a Muslim, immediately suspended a promotional campaign.
The staff of Charlie Hebdo lived dangerously with the full knowledge that their next issue, their next cartoon that blasphemed Muslim faith and culture, could be their last.
And so it was, for 10 of them.
In 2006, Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to an editorial meeting. Some of those killed are featured in this video, which was updated after the shooting. It’s in French with English subtitles, and is absolutely haunting.
The next time you laugh at what you think is provocative satire, keep in mind what the cost for the truly subversive variety can be. It was measured in an awful lot of blood this week.