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. Continue reading