Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie and Me

I've never read Charlie Hebdo. I was aware that it existed, but it purveyed a brand of Franco-français off-color political humor that just wasn't my thing.  To tell the truth, I wasn't sure that I was acculturated enough to really "get" it, even after a decade of life in France: my politically correct American prudishness has worn off some, but not that much, quand même. And it feels so uncomfortable to not be in on the joke.

Not that Charlie Hebdo's humor was so hard to understand, as I see now that I'm making up for lost time, along with much of the western world, through the tamer cartoons which are currently being republished throughout the media. I heard it suggested this week that that was perhaps part of what led to the tragedy: in our modern, connected world, the drawings were easily transmitted; since they were visual, they needed no translation to generate hate.

When I heard about the attack in Paris, I was shocked, but not entirely surprised.  I remembered when Charlie Hebdo republished the controversial drawings of Mohammed back in 2006, and also when it was the victim of a firebomb attack in 2011.  I left work on Wednesday at the normal time, shaken, but not much more.  The victims named cited in the news meant nothing to me. Cabu? Charb?  My husband had heard of them all, of course, and on the television Wednesday night began the testimonies of the grieving French intelligentsia. The people who knew the journalists and artists of Charlie Hebdo shed personal tears over the friends they'd lost. Paris is a small place. Everyone who is anyone here knows each other.

That's when it hit me, the sadness but also the indignation. Free speech is an American value.  Free speech is a French value. Free speech is the core value of the democratic world.  This is normal enough: free speech is an Enlightenment value, and if Voltaire were alive today, he'd probably be writing for Charlie Hebdo.  But there's something specific about the French expression of this, an urge to push it to an extreme, sometimes to prove a point and sometimes simply to prove that it can be done.  The unalienable right to unruly dissension.  It is considered healthier to loudly offend than to say nothing at all.  If you've ever engaged a Frenchman in an argument, you know what I mean: arms are waved, your feelings aren't spared; you're almost certainly victim of crude and often undeserved exaggeration, but it's deployed in part to keep you honest.  In French public dialog, the fringe provocateurs of the Charlie Hebdo throw the punches others may pull, and so what if many are below the belt: it's still part of a long and important tradition.  And they're having a grand time doing it, knowing they're mocking the decent and the codified and making us laugh against our better judgment.

By evening on Wednesday, Place de la République was already full of anonymous mourners and the first "Je Suis Charlie" icons appeared on my friends' Facebook pages.  It seemed a bit presumptuous to call myself Charlie so soon, since after all, we'd only just met.  And given the peculiar role of Charlie Hebdo in French journalism, part gadfly, part impetuous kid brother, and wholly out to shock, who could say "I am Charlie" and have it make any sense?  Likely few of the well-meaning people and institutions around the world who copied and pasted it in emails and twitter feeds, and surely not the NASDAQ, which flashed a giant "Je Suis Charlie" on their Times Square electronic display.

But I wanted to do something symbolic, though admittedly useless, as the knot of sadness and anger grew in my stomach throughout the day on Thursday. I hesitated, and then chose as my profile picture the cover of Charlie Hebdo published shortly after the firebomb attack: a drawing of a Charlie cartoonist and a Muslim man engaged in a juicy kiss with the title "Love is stronger than hate."

I didn't go to the Unity March on Sunday.  It didn't seem like a good idea with the kids, and to be honest, beyond the desire to be part of something historic, I wasn't entirely sure of the point.  The Unity March wasn't even called a "unity march" in French, but la marche républicaine, an untranslatable "march for values of the French Republic." And now that I've missed it I suppose I'll never know, but I hope it was more about plurality than unity: the many voices from many places which form the Republic, not with one copy-pasted sentence but with the cacophony of dialog.  Tearful, indignant, resigned, mistaken, enlightened, ridiculous, inspired, dignified, distasteful, rambling, concise, confused, brilliant and irreverent, in many languages or a few simple pen strokes, leading us all somehow together in the right direction.

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