A decade ago this month, your humble narrator found himself with a sudden and urgent (and ongoing) need to learn French. Learning French is difficult. You need to know grammar and stuff.
But, how hard could it be to pick up the gist of the language through cartoons? There was even a magazine largely composed of cartoon journalism and innocuously named Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) after Charlie Brown. How complex could a cartoon be?
On Sunday, you could pick up the unmistakable, mellifluous cadence of spoken French on the trains, then the platforms, and then the escalators at Civic Center Plaza. Throngs of unmistakably French men and women (lots of scarves) converged on City Hall's steps. They packed tighter and tighter and, eventually, spilled out into the street; the police shut down the road and the crowd grew larger still. All told, perhaps 1,000 people were here, not bad but certainly not the estimated 1.5 million who roamed through Paris and 2.5 million more who gathered elsewhere in France.
It has now been one week since Muslim extremists murdered eight members of Charlie's staff, a visitor, two Paris cops, and a janitor in retribution for the magazine's depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, and a third Islamic terrorist killed a policewoman and gunned down four Jews in a kosher market.
The 17 victims of this cinematic, three-day terror rampage comprise a cross-section of today's French society: blacks, whites, and Arabs; Jews, Muslims, and Christians; men and women; immigrants and native-born; young and old. Perhaps even more than the calculating attack against freedom of expression, this universality justified the now-ubiquitous rallying cry of “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).
Spilled blood has led to spilled ink. And, while an incontrovertible starting point is that massacres undertaken by heavily armed Islamic fanatics are a bad thing, it gets a bit bumpier after that.
A popular line of argumentation among left-leaning intellectuals in the English-speaking world is that, yes, killing is wrong. But, they argue, let us not be too quick to canonize Charlie and disseminate the cartoons its staff died for producing, as that material was symptomatic of a “virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.” Severing Charlie's cartoons from their proper context, ostensibly intelligent individuals saw fit to liken them to simian characterizations of blacks or the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer's drawings of the sort used to dehumanize Europe's Jews and, in effect, grease the skids to the crematoria.
The problem with trying to learn French from Charlie cartoons is that, even if you begin to understand the words, their meanings may escape your grasp. A great deal has been written in the past few days by people who do not grasp that magazine, French society, or the former's place in the latter.
What a cruel fate befell Charlie: It has been judged and condemned by people lacking a sense of humor. Perhaps more than once.
Because French people wear Yankees caps and blue jeans and drink Coca-Cola, it's easy for Americans to observe them on American terms.
But that doesn't work. France is a profoundly different place than here. Rudimentary French phrasebooks instruct greenhorns to say things like, “I'm sorry I'm late, but there was a general strike.” France's government is centralized to a degree inconceivable to Americans. Its citizens have a take-it-to-the-streets mentality that transcends “protester types,” and the half-million demonstrators who regularly roam through Paris, inspired by even fairly arcane policy matters, act as an emergency brake on government.
There are concepts informing the French character that can't readily be translated. Within the blood coursing through the heart of this nation — and where Charlie comes in — is laïcité. The best description we can muster is an anti-clerical, anti-authoritarian urge to drive religiosity from the public sphere; a “religion-blindness” akin to Stephen Colbert's farcical race-blindness.
This is a concept that often works better in the abstract than the concrete.
Charlie, as many of you have come to know in the last week, is a longstanding French satirical magazine established in 1970 after its predecessor, Hara-Kiri, was quashed by government authorities for mocking the death of President Charles de Gaulle. It was founded on the notion that “it is forbidden to forbid.” Or, as San Francisco's Board of Supervisors President London Breed put it many years later: “I don't do what no-motherfucking-body tells me to do.”
This was not, necessarily, a “smart” publication, nor an “intellectual” one. And it wasn't subtle. Charlie's humor tended toward the scatological; describing its contents seems like the kind of thing that could get you sent to the principal's office.
But what the hell: Yes, that is a nude then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, depicted in a cover decrying economic protectionism, doubled into a pretzel and peering up his own asshole (“Why look elsewhere for what you can find at home?”).
Yes, on a cover regarding legalized same-sex marriage, that is Jesus fucking a bearded God and, in turn, being cornholed by The Holy Ghost.
And, yes, that is a weeping Prophet, under the caption “Mohammed overcome by fundamentalists.” Says the man in the black robe and turban: “It's tough to be loved by morons.”
And this is where everything collides. It's understandable that France's ethnic and religious minorities, simultaneously pressured to be French but because of societal prejudice never truly allowed to be “French,” view laïcité as bogus and hollow. But it's the fiercely secular nature of laïcité that compelled Charlie to place “blasphemous” images on the cover, be they Mohammed or Jesus sodomizing God.
Charlie has always been, in fact, a profoundly leftist publication. Its cartoons routinely scandalized French right-wing politicians and depicted Israeli soldiers gleefully machine-gunning helpless Palestinians (“Take that, Goliath!”) or Mitt Romney calling for “a White House that's really white.” And so, the moral equivalencies spewed by those hoping to depict Charlie as a symptom of rightist nativism and racism smack of cheap, inflammatory tactics — ignorant at best, disingenuous at worst.
Unlike the legitimately racist and antisemitic cartoons Charlie found itself compared to, this magazine didn't purport to denigrate any race or faith, but, rather, extremists and dogma. Charlie, in fact, allotted most of its space to skewering the politicians and policies most objectionable to France's immigrants and oppressed minorities. Hopefully lost on nobody is that these politicians will benefit the most from a Muslim fundamentalist attack on a fervent critic, and the fearfulness it will sow.
Depictions of Mohammed struck many as tasteless and deeply hurtful. Charlie's staff was not unaware of this. The decision to print these cartoons was not a casual one. But, in the end, this was a magazine largely without a filter. The boundaries of free society must continually be tested. And this is not always done via “great art,” nor does “great art” necessarily topple fascists or fundamentalists more effectively than quotidian, not-great art. Or even bad art: The sheer silliness of a film in which a missile launched from Seth Rogen's rectum kills North Korea's dictator was, surely, more threatening to that country's leadership cult than less-accessible, higher-brow material (which, quite likely, would be nearly anything).
“Let's stop them damn pictures,” 19th-century New York political crook Boss Tweed purportedly bemoaned of Thomas Nast's editorial cartoons. “I don't care so much what the papers write about — my constituents can't read — but damn it, they can see pictures.” Those cartoons helped topple Tweed. He became a fugitive, but was nabbed by cops who recognized him from Nast's work.
Nast and his publishers resisted a lot of pressure — and a lot of bribe money. They were driven by righteousness. Charlie's motivations are more opaque. But its philosophy is probably best encapsulated by one of its less controversial covers. Under the headline “The Invention of Humor,” a Neanderthal grasps, in one hand, a lit torch and, in the other, a vat of oil. Charlie mixed it up because it could.
They didn't do what no-motherfucking-body told them to do.
Throngs of demonstrators gathered Sunday at City Hall's steps. And then — nothing. There was no leader to make an inspirational speech. There were no speakers at all. A man with a shock of white hair and a beard began waving his arms and pontificating and, awaiting something, anything, the crowd quieted for him. But it was just some crusty old Berkeley-type communist, attempting to hijack the meeting by railing against “the bankers.” He was, in every sense, speaking the wrong language for this crowd. He was booed off the steps.
Instead, the crowd recited the names of the 17 dead, and broke into “La Marseillaise.” And that was a beautiful moment. But also a profoundly disturbing one. Because “La Marseillaise” is a soldiers' song, a song of surprising brutality sung by a people under attack:
Against us tyranny/Raises its bloody banner. Do you hear, in the countryside/The roar of those ferocious soldiers? They're coming right into your arms/To cut the throats of your sons and women!
To arms, citizens! Form your battalions. Let's march! Let's march! Let an impure blood/Water our furrows!
Understanding the French is difficult. You need to know history and context and stuff.
After singing its national anthem, the crowd, again, went quiet. But then one woman lifted her arms in the air, pitched back her head, and shouted to the skies above: “Vive la république!”
And then, necessarily: “Vive la laïcité!”