from the everyone-else-loses dept
For years, Charlie Hebdo waged a brutal, often ugly war on good taste, restraint and self-righteousness. The satirical magazine took on every major religion, along with anything else it could satirize. It only had problems with one particular target: Islam. Rather, it only had problems with followers of Islam who believed brutal acts of violence were a perfectly acceptable way of resolving religious differences.
After years of publication that were marked with multiple attacks (some political, some physical), the worst case scenario finally happened. Two Islamist gunmen entered Charlie Hebdo's offices and killed twelve employees.
This was met with outrage by journalists, satirists and cartoonists around the world. For weeks, people who felt free speech -- no matter how offensive -- should never be punishable by death, expressed their solidarity using the phrase "Je Suis Charlie."
This attack was also met with outrage by government officials, who expressed their concern in the usual way: by calling for more surveillance and restrictive laws. To these figures, the attack had very little to do with free speech and everything to do with terrorism. It was just another nail and governments had plenty of unused legislative hammers just dying to be deployed. That their proposals were the antithesis of free and open societies -- the sort of thing espoused indirectly by Charlie Hebdo's satirical War on Everybody -- was completely lost on them. It was an opportunity to seize more control, provided by some very helpful terrorists.
The solidarity expressed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks soon fell apart, however. Charlie Hebdo, still mourning its dead, was attacked by its own colleagues -- journalists and artists from around the world. The PEN American Center chose to bestow its annual "Freedom of Expression Courage" award on Charlie Hebdo, a move that was met with protests from other PEN members including Teju Cole, Joyce Carol Oates and Eric Bogosian. To them, the award did nothing more than award "racists" for "punching down" and adding to anti-Islamic sentiment.
Not only was the protest completely tone-deaf in the wake of the massacre, it was a willful and very selective misreading of Charlie Hebdo's body of work. While Charlie Hebdo was famous for its caricatures of Muhammad, it also attacked other major religions. The only difference was that no other religion's acolytes did anything more than fire off angry letters. That these writers and artists would basically side with those who killed Charlie Hebdo's staffers -- even inadvertently -- is sickening.
Even if these artists felt Charlie Hebdo's work was reprehensible, there were -- and continue to be -- much greater issues at stake. Hundreds of journalists, satirists and artists around the world have been imprisoned by governments in order to silence them. By siding against Charlie Hebdo, these artists sided with not only extremists who feel killing is an appropriate reaction to being mocked indirectly, but these governments who feel creative efforts targeting certain individuals or ideas should be punishable by imprisonment or death. What happened to Charlie Hebdo could happen to anyone. All it takes is angering the wrong people. But the 145 artists and writers who signed the protest letter felt this abandonment of their colleagues was the high moral ground.
Fortunately, PEN didn't see it this way. It offered a succinctly brilliant response to the misguided protest:
PEN, in a statement posted on its website earlier this week, reiterated its position that the intent of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “was not to ostracize or insult Muslims but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits.”But now, a few months later, the terrorists have won. And they had help.
Last week, in an interview with German newsweekly Stern, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau waved a white flag, stained with the blood of 12 murdered colleagues and comrades, when announcing that he would no longer draw cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. It was clear that Charlie Hebdo — of which Riss owns 40 percent — was also done with Muhammad mockery. This comes just a few months after cartoonist Renald “Luz” Luzier said that drawing Muhammad “no longer interested” him. He quit Charlie Hebdo not long after. The editor of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was more forthcoming about why he too was done with the prophet. As the newspaper that kicked off the “Muhammad cartoon crisis” in 2005, Jyllands-Posten would not be republishing anything from Charlie Hebdo, he stated bluntly, because the staff feared a repeat of the the massacre in Paris.This is why terrorists do what they do. These are the results they want. And as much as it is disheartening to see this decision being made, it's also a completely understandable reaction. Dying for your art may be a romantic ideal, but it's hardly the sort of thing any person should honestly expect themselves or others to do. We may be disappointed that Charlie Hebdo no longer has the strength of its convictions that saw it weather previous attacks, but when 12 people are gunned down for making fun of one religious figure, those who wish to avoid the same fate know exactly what to remove from the equation.
But it's not just the threat of attacks. The lack of support from its peers and their accusations of racism have also contributed to this decision. Not only is it literally dangerous to "attack" one particular religious figure, it's also unpopular.
The relentless campaign against Charlie Hebdo by those accusing it of “racism” or “punching down” has had an effect. Because once deployed, as the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo discovered, the racism charge sticks to the accused’s skin like napalm. And no one is immune — even murdered cartoonists — because there are no penalties for filing a false report. So if they expected unmitigated solidarité after their staff was machine gunned (while planning their participation, it should be noted, in an anti-racism event), they were surely disappointed when non-Francophone writers who hadn’t previously heard of Charlie exploded with denunciations of its racist intent.It's one thing to work while keeping an eye out for gunmen in the hall. It's even harder to do when other beneficiaries of free speech protections decide your speech isn't worthy of similar respect. Charlie Hebdo didn't lose its courage. It lost its comrades.
So one can't begrudge Riss and Luz and all the other survivors at Charlie Hebdo the decision to go soft on those who most demand mockery and derision. But we should begrudge those in media who shrugged at the assassin’s veto, claiming they couldn’t publish satirical cartoons out of respect for religion, for whom Je Suis Charlie was merely social media signaling.Those who went soft were those whose convictions couldn't even hold up to an attack that happened to someone else. Then there were plenty who never held these convictions at all, but Je Suis Charlie'd right up to the PEN Award nominations before deciding the few people shouting "racist!" were the voice of reason. And they sold out Charlie Hebdo -- along with every persecuted artist and journalist in the world -- by decrying its offerings as being unworthy of their consideration, respect and support.
I'm sure the terrorists feel they have won. We should ask Teju Cole, Joyce Carol Oates and the other 200+ signers of the anti-Charlie Hebdo petition if they feel they've achieved a victory as well.