Understanding Charlie Hebdo

January 9th 2015, Paris.

Imagine getting this news:

“The members of [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE MUSICAL GROUP HERE] have just been killed along with the police officers guarding them by a group of heavily armed assailants. Initial reports suggest that the assailants were born in [INSERT YOUR COUNTRY HERE].”

This imaginary analogy is the best one that I can come up with to give myself, and other North Americans, some of the sense of what many French people are feeling right now. Another analogy is of course to the September 11th attack (the headline in today’s Le Monde is “LE 11-SEPTEMBRE FRANÇAIS”), which does capture some of the enormity of tragedy, as well the connections in both cases to “Islamic” extremist groups. What that analogy doesn’t capture is the cultural loss that the French have suffered with the deaths at Charlie Hebdo, and it also doesn’t capture the fact this tragedy is also connected to conflicts within French society. I’ll explain in a bit why I think the murder of a group of famous musicians is a good analogy in our cultural context.

On January 7th at home in Nantes, my partner came home in the early afternoon with tears in her eyes. “Did you hear about the attack in Paris? Cabu and Wolinsky are dead.” She had to explain to me who these people were. I then found out a little more from the short descriptions of Charlie Hebdo in the English language press, and from the drawings that were circulating that were related to the attack. At this point, I didn’t understand the motivation behind some of the cartoons at all. I could more easily see why Muslims would be offended by them. That anyone would think publishing these cartoons should be punished by death is of course beyond all imagination, but I didn’t understand why the cartoonists felt compelled to engage in this mockery – it seemed needlessly disrespectful to even ordinary Muslims to caricature Mohammed.

On January 8th, I traveled to Paris to meet with colleagues. By that time, I had learned a little more about Charlie Hebdo and its creators, and how important their work was to so many French people. The enormity of the loss really started to impress itself on me  when I was talking to a colleague who like me has a French partner. I said that it seemed like we really couldn’t understand what was happening since the Charlie Hebdo creators weren’t a part of our lives like they were for the French. She told me that they were heroes to her partner when he was a teenager. Shortly thereafter sitting in another office trying to work, but still thinking about our conversation, my own eyes first started to well with tears. The night before, I had found out that the attacks had taken place in the 11ième, where I’ve mostly been staying while in Paris, just off the route I take to walk to the universities in the Latin quarter. That physical proximity, even seeing the media trucks around the site at the end of the day on the 8th, had practically no effect on me compared to that phrase “teenage hero”.

I then had another meeting with a French colleague who is nominally retired. We had some mutual linguistic interests we had planned to discuss, but we mostly talked about Charlie Hebdo, and about French history and social and religious conflicts, from the Revolution to the present, through the Vichy regime during World War II and the war in Algeria (googling “Paris massacre” will get you not only Wednesday’s event, but also the 1961 massacre of Algerian protesters at the hands of French police, mandated by the chief of police who had been a Vichy collaborator). He told me he had been reading Charlie Hebdo since it was launched in the 1960s, and that while he didn’t keep up with it regularly, he always made a point of buying it when an issue provoked calls for its closure amongst some segment of the French population, even if that issue seemed somewhat distasteful to him personally. Charlie Hebdo was in fact started after another publication involving its founders had been shut down by the government. All of this helped me appreciate that this magazine took as a part of its mission, along with the important and often realized goal of making people laugh hysterically, the confrontation of all sacred cows. Islam and its extremist mutations weren’t a special target – Catholics, Jews and Protestants have taken their share of the mockery too, as have French politicians of all stripes. Charlie Hebdo fought the notion that any topic or group could be declared off limit from satire. This I can understand, even if I still have misgivings about the Mohammed caricatures.

I don’t think there is a North American equivalent to Charlie Hebdo. Yes, political satire and caricature exist, but to the extent that it’s popular, it’s also extremely “soft” compared with Charlie Hebdo. Aggressive satire, directed fearlessly at all sacred cows in society, is simply not a central part of our culture in the way it is in France. Many of us have musicians as teenage heroes that we keep listening to throughout our lives. Part of the appeal of Charlie Hebdo for a teenager would be its irreverence and confrontation of authority, and musicians often have that appeal too. So if you aren’t French and want to feel a little of what many French are feeling now, imagine losing your favorite band, or some other group of teenage heroes, to a commando operation. It’s even possible to imagine musicians becoming martyrs to free speech, as the Charlie Hebdo team has become, since lyrics are also sometimes political, and can be offensive to some segment of the population.

I’ve learned a lot about Charlie Hebdo, and about French history, society and culture over the last few days. The murderers apparently claimed to have “killed Charlie Hebdo”. They may have killed its creators, but their creation now lives in the minds of even more people than it did before their death. This gives me some hope, in a time when it’s easy to give into despair. Can this sort of tragedy provide the impetus for people to try to better understand other cultures? Can we overcome the tribal instincts to set our group apart from another, to vilify the other, and even seek its destruction? Given what’s happening, I’m extremely glad to be here, to have just watched my 4-year-old turn into a little française seemingly overnight, to be planning to jam next week with a friend who plays the oud.  This morning I had breakfast in the Belleville market: msemmen at a stand staffed by Algerians. I had it with cheese, and it was sort of like a Middle Eastern crêpe. It was delicious – and it made me cry again.

Postscript Nantes January 10 This morning I found on our kitchen table an old issue of Charlie Hebdo that my partner’s father had left out for us. I think does a great job of illustrating its extreme and generalized irreverance: Charlie Hebdo enterre Mitterand “Charlie Hebdo buries Mitterand”.

an old issue of Charlie Hebdo

Postscript Nantes January 12 I feel the need to add a note about the slogan Je suis Charlie “I am Charlie” after reading a little more of the response in the American media, and after seeing it used so broadly in France. Some commentators in the United States have expressed the need to distance themselves from this slogan. David Brooks titles his New York Times piece “I am not Charlie Hebdo” because he thinks it inappropriate for most people to use  Je suis Charlie: “Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” Similarly, Cristen A. Smith approvingly cites the use of the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie as acknowledging “the history of the magazine ‘s racism”. Both of these imply what I think is a misreading of the intent of the slogan, which I believe for the vast majority of people is to express “disgust for the attack and empathy for the victims” (Dominique Moisi), or to express general support for freedom of expression, which is what I have heard most here in France. I avoided using this slogan in my piece precisely because I felt that its interpretation was unclear. In an early draft I expressed my discomfort with it in relation to the Mohammed caricatures, and in a later draft after realizing the general use of the slogan was not in support of any particular work of Charlie Hebdo, I ended with Nous sommes tous Charlie “We are all Charlie”, which I prefer for its inclusiveness. But I finally left it out, which now seeing the confusion around it, seems like the right choice.


Edit January 12. Added this sentence "It's even possible to imagine musicians becoming martyrs to free speech, as the Charlie Hebdo team has become, since lyrics are also sometimes political, and can be offensive to some segment of the population.", and obviously, the January 12 postscript.