I got up early Wednesday morning, along with countless others, to buy the new issue of Charlie Hebdo but all the newsstands in my quartier were sold out, though I was able to get my hands on a copy that evening (via a vital personal connection). And I learn via social media that today, Saturday, the newsstands—which are being resupplied every morning—are still quickly selling out. Everyone will eventually get their copy. One, of course, should buy it out of solidarity but this issue reminds me of why I have not been a CH regular, mainly seeing it though selected articles photocopied at the library (quite unlike that other satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné, which is an indispensable source of information on French politics and that I have bought every week without fail for the past twenty-plus years). The cartoons are typically CH: a few are clever and/or witty, others sophomoric or just not funny. As for the columns, they’re uneven. I’ve long followed Jean-Yves Camus—one of France’s best specialists of far right and antisemitic movements, who has a commentary here on conspiracy theories—and “uncle” Bernard Maris (an older piece of his is in the issue). Charb could be quite good—see, e.g. my post on a commentary of his a year ago on Zionism and anti-Zionism—but he’s not in the issue, of course. I can’t speak to most of the other writers and columnists, who haven’t seemed too interesting (admittedly subjective on my part). This is no doubt the first time most of those who are queuing at the newsstands have ever bought CH (or tried to). I’d be surprised if most will continue to do so, including those for whom it was regular reading during their leftist/anarchist high school and college years—an important past CH demographic—before moving on (pour mémoire, CH’s readers have always been exclusively on the left; right-wingers never look at it). Without Charb, Wolinski, or Cabu, the overall quality of the cartoons—already dubious—will be affected (who knows, maybe they’ll try to hire back the 86-year-old Siné, whose 2009 firing caused a sharp drop in CH’s readership). And CH will need both new writers and new issues to riff on about, as trashing religion is just so boring and has-been. Absolutely everyone in France—including all Muslims—support laïcité (as spelled out in the 1905 law). Going on about it in 2015 is so much flogging the dead horse. It will also be helpful if CH drops its price, which, at €3, is high for what it is (Le Canard Enchaîné—which, like CH, carries no ads—has held steady at €1.20 for years).
The current issue of CH is supposed to be translated into 16 languages, or something like that. What a mistake. Much of CH’s content is untranslatable. Most of those who lack familiarity with French culture, politics, and satire will be scratching their heads, as they often do when reading or hearing about something going on in France. À propos, a week ago, while still in the US, I had an email exchange with an American journalist friend in Paris, who wrote the following
It is becoming harder, not easier, for me to write about CH, because—predictably and as always—I realize that I’m up against an audience that just doesn’t get it. Even France, a country better known to Americans than any other non-Anglophone country, is still an absolute mystery to them. The entire literary tradition they represented means nothing to them; the difference between this and other terrorist attacks is not immediately obvious to them; and once certain rumors start flying around the American media, they are just impossible to dispel…
In this vein, another American friend—who grew up in Paris and lives in Washington—wrote the following on social media the other day, in response to my posting of a New York Observer interview on the Charlie Hebdo massacre with the cartoonist Robert Crumb, who has lived in France for the past 25 years
[Robert Crumb] spent enough time offending “les bien pensants” with his sexually graphic graphics to last him a life time. And yet… He nails it on the head. Yes, there is a fundamental cultural divide (in my humble opinion) between the US and France about what constitutes speech. I was at a dinner several nights ago surrounded by local DC pundits… They were all appalled at Charlie Hebdo and its insistence/raison d’être to satirize to the outer limits anything that smacks of idolatry, statist ideology, dogma, doctrine, establishmentarianism of any sort regardless of political or religious belief. That’s who they are. Get over it! I tried to tell these pundits that no one makes you read Charlie Hebdo. It’s healthy to have a rag like that in the public sphere that pushes the boundaries. It’s there for you to explore. Just like the Marquis de Sade’s writings are available for you to explore the most arcane usages of sexual whatever. Oh no!!! We can’t have that in the US.
How sadly true!
In this trans-Atlantic failure to communicate, the main difference IMO—in culture and sensibility—is the satirizing of religion. America values free speech as much as France does—even more so, I’d argue—but there is a respect for religion in America and a taboo on ridiculing the religious beliefs of others that simply doesn’t exist in France, or at least in a large part of French society (and particularly those on the left side of the political spectrum). As one of my social media interlocutors commented the other day
[Charlie Hebdo is] a hard one to explain to North Americans because it is so culturally specific and subjective. People are not used to seeing this kind of imagery used in the way CH does. Also North American liberals and leftists usually don’t understand enough French and they have an approach that is more direct and preachy. I also think leftists in the States are fundamentally more respectful of religion from the get go. I think this is because religion in the States has been progressive at times: Black church, Quakers, Liberation Theologists, and because religion and the idea of freedom of religion are so central to the culture that progressives in NA have tended to leave it alone and organize coalitions across religious lines around issues that matter.
To which a friend added
I think the greater respect for religion is due to never having had to suffer a state religion. We take that separation (except when the Christian Right tries to throw its weight around) for granted.
I will add to this that liberals and leftists in America cannot conceive of a mass political movement that doesn’t involve the active participation of churches (and synagogues). Every last antiwar demonstration in America of any consequence—in my lifetime, at least—has seen important contingents of church groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Catholics, etc) and other religious organizations. When I lived in New York City in the late ’70s-early ’80s, one of the main sites for leftist political events was the Riverside Church (interdenominational). In Washington DC it was All Souls Church (Unitarian). When I was active in immigration issues in Chicago in the 1980s, associations linked to the Catholic church were important actors in the local activist coalition. And then there was the civil rights movement, almost every last leader of which was a religious figure (Martin Luther King Jr, you name it; and Malcolm X too). In France, religiously based associations, personalities, and publications have participated in progressive causes over the years—e.g. Cimade, Témoignage Chrétien, Abbé Pierre—but generally speaking and given the history of conflict between organized religion (i.e. the Catholic church) and the Republic, the benevolence toward religion and close association with religious organizations that one finds on the American left is incomprehensible and alien to its counterparts in France.
Back to Charlie Hebdo, on understanding its cartoons, reader Conor Meleady alerted me to the invaluable website with precisely this name, Understanding Charlie Hebdo cartoons (also here). If you’re a mystified Anglo-American who doesn’t know French—or even if you do—this is where to go to make sense of CH.
Here are a few of the good essays I’ve read (in English) over the past several days:
British-Canadian journalist Leigh Phillips has a terrific piece on the Montreal-based website Ricochet, “Lost in translation: Charlie Hebdo, free speech and the unilingual left,” aimed at leftist Anglo-Americans who have absurdly labelled CH “racist,” “bigoted,” and “Islamophobic” (among these my friend Anne Norton, who had a piece a week ago in the Huffington Post, “Charlie Hebdo and Europe’s rising right,” with which I am, needless to say, in strong disagreement).
Also critiquing a certain knee-jerk, ill-informed reaction to CH on the American left is Seth Ackerman of Jacobin, who asserts that “The Right is trying to essentialize Muslims. The Left should not fall into the same trap.” Money quote
Allergic as I am to intemperate rants, I am equally allergic to insult humor, and that is why I don’t particularly enjoy or approve of cartoons of this genre. But many of the first reactions on the US left — seeing Charlie as a kind of French Der Stürmer — were based on a serious misreading of a paper whose now-dead editor was a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause and a longtime illustrator for the anti-racist group MRAP. (Its slogan: “Everyone is not alike, Everyone is equal.”)
To drive home the point, Ackerman posted on his own “Too Hot for Jacobin” blog his translation of CH religion editor Zineb el-Rhazoui’s December 2013 essay, “If Charlie is racist, then I am.”
To those Anglo-American leftists who think that CH was “racist”: Did you see the TV reports of Charb’s funeral yesterday, where Jean-Luc Mélenchon and PCF Secretary-General Pierre Laurent, entre autres, gave eulogies and the Internationale was sung? As one distinguished Washington-based political scientist wrote on social media today
Charb, cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, was interred to the music of the Internationale and of a New Orleans jazz band. For me that pretty much sums up Charlie Hebdo.
Addressing the other side of the US political spectrum, Paris-based journalist and friend Claire Berlinski had a salutary post last Monday on a website also called Ricochet—this one a “conservative conversation and community”—that she entitled “Paris update or, “Who should I believe? You or my lying eyes?” Nice job, Claire (though you exaggerate the facility with which people in France can obtain firearms; hunting rifles are sold over-the-counter—to those who have a hunting license (obtained after passing a state-administered exam)—but handguns require a prior police permit—which one needs a good reason to obtain—and the private possession of assault weapons is, of course, illegal).
Steven A. Cook, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, has a post on his CFR blog on the “disturbingly equivocal” reaction in Turkey to the CH massacre. Money quote
According to the always-excellent Arun Kapil…
شكرا يا ستيفين
Hussein Ibish, the well-known Lebanese-American publicist, has a sharp commentary on the Lebanese website NOW on how “Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover isn’t objectionable; it’s brave and touching.”
Cambridge University prof Olivier Tonneau—and member of J-L Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche—has a “letter to my British friends” in The Guardian, in which he explains that “it’s important to understand the role the magazine played for the French left, rather than judge its content out of context.”
Writing in the HuffPost, UC-Davis law prof Karima Bennoune says that “One week after the Charlie Hebdo attack [we must] refuse to sign up for the clash of civilizations.”
If one didn’t see it, Andrew Sullivan, posted on Wednesday his first commentary on the CH killings, “Charlie, blasphemer,” in which he got it just right.
Justin E. H. Smith, who teaches philosophy at the University of Paris 7, has a reflection in The Utopian, “Paris, 2015,” of events of the past ten days.
À suivre, évidemment.