A protest sign — both very Gallic and oddly charming — spotted at the massive unity rally in Paris earlier this month to protest the recent terror attacks there, read, in effect (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation, but I’m out here marching anyway.’
And one thing you can say about the French: they know how to put on a protest.
But now that all the dust has settled, and after it seems the entire world has paid tribute to the murdered writers and artists at the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo — I, too, like any writer or artist, would like to pay tribute to the lives of those poor, unfortunate staff members who worked there and died there.
And yet I too have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation.
I feel like I may be stepping into it by even bringing this up; but as the nation of France rushes with political unanimity into ‘war with the Arabs’ — as some of the French themselves are calling it — in response to the recent terrorist attacks, I can’t help but feel like we’ve seen this movie before.
And I thought perhaps now might be a good time to discuss the real-world, political ramifications of any writing, fiction or non-fiction.
I currently am at work on a novel with a small subplot involving a commune in 1970s California. This part of my story involves some rather sanctimonious individuals, the type of know-it-all, kale-eating Lefty liberals that people on the political right love to hate. If you grew up in Northern California, like I did, you know people like this. They are the humorless, holier-than-thou types that naturally lend themselves to satire.
Yet I find myself struggling to establish the right tone; I struggle to extend these characters some small modicum of respect — so that they will live and breath like any character on the page ideally should — and yet still let them do the same stupid, self-serving things that my narrative warrants and demands. I’ve been struggling with the tone of this section for months now.
In other words, I guess what I’m saying is, satire in freaking hard to do right.
Now my feeling on the subject is that if you’re doing satire right, you are upsetting the powerful, not the powerless. And when a publication like Charlie Hebdo, which prides itself on satirizing everybody and everything, goes after the sacred cows of Islam, the real targets for their abrasive brand of satire are, naturally, the radical imams and mullahs, the humorless ayatollahs, who deserve to be mocked.
Yet, in practice, the slings and arrows of Charlie Hebdo’s particular brand of outrageousness do not land that far afield. They land — with some real force — on the heads of much closer targets, those Muslims immigrants who live in the miserable, squalid banlieues that surround most major French cities. And anyone who thinks the French Muslim population has any genuine cultural or economic power hasn’t spent much time in France.
So when Charlie Hebdo publishes an image of the Prophet on its cover, they are hardly going after what real power there is in the Muslim world — say, the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
In the last forty years, according to some reports, the Saudi Arabian elites have spent over a $100 billion dollars exporting Wahhabism — the radical, fundamentalist sect of Islam from which terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State arise — to the world. But let’s be honest. As a nation, France, like the rest of Europe, spends as much time sucking up to the Saudi royal family for their oil as they do to Putin.
As they say, the addict never tells the truth to his pusher’s face.
Prior to the recent terror attacks, Charlie Hebdo had the approximate cultural relevance in France that Mad magazine now has in the United States.
Both publications started in the 1960s and reflect the countercultural impulse to ‘take down’ the Establishment that marked that turbulent period. But where Mad magazine once would get you totally busted by your mom if she caught you with a copy of it tucked under your mattress — ‘Why do they have to put that horrible, funny-looking man on the cover all the time?’ — nowadays it would more likely elicit nothing more than a yawn.
About the same could be said, until recently, about Charlie Hebdo.
(Though, it also should be said, unlike Mad magazine, Charlie Hebdo has long had a reputation for being obstinately clueless and unfunny, when it wasn’t busy being reductionist and downright racist.)
Now I am not one to call for censorship. Like any writer, I champion freedom of speech and the First Amendment. And it goes without saying that absolutely nobody deserves to die for anything they might draw or write.
But sometimes a little sensitivity, even when engaging in satire — especially when engaging in satire, which is a higher, more politically engaged form of humor — is almost always warranted. For what is the purpose of any artistic endeavor if not to achieve some greater understanding? And understanding can only occur where there is a modicum of respect — both mutual respect and respect for the Other.
Putting an image of Muhammad having down-and-dirty sex, say, on the cover of your newspaper might appear brave to some. Or foolhardy. Or just plain foolish. Just like venturing into a largely African-American neighborhood and shouting a certain racial slur might also seem brave to some.
Or foolhardy. Or just plain foolish.
It is easy to feel contempt for that which we satirize. But a writer or artist who holds only contempt for his creations is not going to be able to produce characters that feel real and alive; they will feel to the reader only like what they are, symbols and tropes, political philosophy, bigotry, and received ideas masquerading as fictional characters.
So next time — and I’m sure there’s going to be a next time — we are confronted with an equally complicated political or social situation as l’affaire de Charlie Hebdo, by all means I think we should write about it, make fun it, say stupid things about it. That is our right as citizens of the world.
But next time maybe we might also remember that a little sensitivity in the face of conflicting sensibilities goes a long way — not only to further our own argument, but to insure that our argument doesn’t land on deaf ears.
And so while I have very conflicted about this very complicated situation, ‘Je suis Charlie,’ too.