Je ne suis pas Charlie

Did I get that right? If not, blame Google Translate. I know next to nothing about what Scott Evil would term “Paris talk.”

My point, in thus running against the current proper emotion, is that even though one might think I’d be the first to identify with the victims at Charlie Hebdo, I’d actually be among the last.

As Robert Ariail’s longtime editor — and one whom Robert used to flatter as being the rare sort of editor who could “think like a cartoonist” — it should really hit home for me when terrorists invade editorial offices and start shooting, with cartoonists and their editor being their specific, intended targets.

And on certain, basic, levels, it does. As someone who believes firmly in the importance of free expression in a free society, and especially on a human level. No one deserves such a fate. Those who carried out the attack must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, or killed if they cannot be captured. They and their actions are beyond the pale. But because I have been involved daily in the production of satirical cartoons, and because I’ve made the thousands of small judgments that such a task involves, I feel acutely the difference between me and those responsible for Charlie Hebdo. It’s a difference that may seem subtle to you, and many will misunderstand me. But for me, there’s a bright line.

I am not Charlie because I would not create or publish some of the things that Charlie has published.

Most specifically, I would not even once, much less regularly, intentionally mock someone else’s sincerely-held religious beliefs. If I, in a weak moment (and I most assuredly would regard it as weakness, not strength — the inability to resist a cruel joke at someone else’s expense) did so, I would feel shame. I would not pat myself on the back for being courageous. Just because there’s someone out there who will kill you for making a bad joke doesn’t excuse the joke or make it heroic. It’s still a bad joke.

A situation such as this generates a lot of emotion, with predictable reactions, so let me go ahead and address a couple of the predictable misunderstandings that will greet what I’m saying:

  1. I’m not “blaming the victim,” to use one of more irritating catchphrases of our age. The blame lies entirely with the terrorists, whose murderous actions are utterly unjustified. Nothing that Charlie Hebdo has ever published, however offensive, justifies violence. And the editors of Charlie had every right to publish what they have published. My comments deal with the many choices one makes between the boundaries of the many things we have the right to do.
  2. I’m not saying that editors should not publish certain things because of fear of attack. Far from it. What I’m saying is that editors should not publish things that they should not publish, period. The threat of violence is irrelevant, and merely clouds the issue, making it hard to see the point I’m making. I hold that however incisive and hard-hitting your commentary, one should always strive to respect those you criticize as fellow human beings. And a most fundamental way you respect other people is that you don’t mock their religion.

I realize I’m on one side of a cultural chasm here. While many Americans can identify with the aggressive secularism that is so common in Europe, I cannot. I’m more of a typical denizen of this country in that I defy the Western trend toward rejecting traditional religion. But in a sense, that’s irrelevant. I like to think that even if I were an atheist, I’d be the sort of atheist who found it unthinkable to mock others for their faith. Mocking other people’s deeply cherished beliefs, ones that are sacred to them, is just so tacky, so low, so déclassé, so nekulturny. I’d find it, as Mr. Darcy would say, insupportable.

Also, I sense that satire plays a somewhat different role in European politics than it does here. You say “satirical newspaper” — the standard description of Charlie Hebdo in news reports — and I think of The Onion. I love The Onion, even when it is at its most irreverent. But that is because I and others see it as all a big joke. It doesn’t occupy a place near the center of our political discourse. I may laugh my scrawny posterior off at a well-turned phrase in The Onion, but I don’t put the writer of that phrase in the same category as Thomas Paine, Horace Greeley, William Allen White, Walter Lippman, David Broder, Kathleen Parker or anyone else who has sincerely wrestled with the issues of the day.

A lot of younger people, we are told, get their news from “The Daily Show,” with everything filtered through a satirical strainer. And we, their elders, greatly valued the political gags of “SNL” in its heyday. Sure, there has always been a place for humor in political commentary, from Mark Twain through Robert Ariail. And I value that. Given much of the soul-crushing madness in our public life, humor is indispensable.

And when a cartoonist uses perfectly legitimate symbolism in making a satirical point, and oversensitive people — a category that includes many Muslims — object on irrelevant grounds, I defend him. I’ve been there many times. If you have a copy of Robert’s last book while at The State, take a look at the cover. It shows a varied mob chasing Robert with the proverbial torches and pitchforks, with such recognizable figures as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (two of his favorite caricatures) leading the pack. Look back a bit, and you’ll see some Muslim women in burqas among the irate mob. (Sorry, this is the biggest image of the cover I could find on short notice.)

Those women, or their real-life counterparts, actually inspired that cover, and for that matter the book. One day in 2001, some Muslim women were complaining about an Ariail cartoon that they felt disrespected them and Islam. Here’s the cartoon in question:


That cartoon made fun of a new dress code for pages in the Legislature by showing them covered by burqas. This was obviously making fun of the lawmakers, not Muslim women. We shrugged off the criticism. I said something to Robert like, “You’ve just got everybody on your case lately, don’t you — flag supporters, the governor, Democrats, Republicans, traditional Muslim women…” Which inspired the cover drawing, which we then quickly decided would be a great cover for a book, which we then started to compile.

Robert experienced similar criticism after we both got canned from the paper, over the cartoon below. Though I was no longer paid to do so, I defended him quite vehemently. It’s hard to imagine a better way of stating one of the main flaws with Nikki Haley, particularly at that time — that she talks a big game on transparency, but doesn’t deliver. It was funny, pointed and entirely relevant. And its target was the governor of the state — no wait; going by the date on the post, it was a lawmaker well on her way to becoming the governor of the state.

Note the distinction here. True journalistic courage and integrity lies in willingness to skewer the powerful — the people who hold sway over our lives. It does not lie in deliberately mocking the Prophet, and thereby dumping on the sincere beliefs of a largely powerless, marginalized minority in your society, which is how I would describe Muslims in Europe.

There is a world of difference between unintentionally offending someone’s sensibilities (there is someone out there offended by every cartoon, which is unfortunate but unavoidable) with a symbol or image used to make a sharp point about the powerful, and deliberately savaging a revered religious figure just for the point of doing just that.

The problem in publishing images of the Prophet isn’t that you might offend terrorists. It’s that you will certainly spit in the faces of millions of unoffending Muslims who mean you no harm.

The Wall Street Journal posted a video today telling about some of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. At the very end, you see the murdered editor saying:

We are in a weird situation in France. Islam is the second religion in the country in terms of practitioners. And in fact, nobody knows anything about Mohammed. Nobody knows anything about this religion. It’s a religion that scares people because every time we talk about it, it’s when we talk about bomb attacks done by an extreme minority.

So… how do you get from there to deciding that the proper way to respond to that “extreme minority” is to go out of your way to mock the inoffensive, overwhelming majority of people who make up the second-largest religious group in your country? People whose faith you acknowledge that people like you know little about? (And please note the majoritarian assumption underlying his words. “Nobody knows anything about this religion” — nobody except the members of the nation’s second-largest religious group. Such ethnocentrism is weird in someone being lionized as a martyr to liberalism. He displays here the narrowness that unfortunately characterizes so many people who see themselves as the most broad-minded. Sorry to speak ill of the dead, but this is worth pointing out.)

The Washington Post is absolutely right to say, as it does in an editorial today, “Charlie Hebdo stands solidly for free expression. The West must do no less.” I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Post‘s editors on that point. But I can’t honestly say “Je suis Charlie,” because I’ve thought too carefully about such issues over the years, and I know I am not. To paraphrase something allegedly said (the quote is apparently apocryphal) by a famous Frenchman, I defend to the death the right of Charlie to publish what Charlie sees fit to publish. And I will stand in solidarity with the millions of defenders of Charlie against the forces of darkness and intimidation. But I am not Charlie.

Watch this: Some idiot — the sort who should be the subject of a cartoon — will say I’m a coward; I’m “afraid” to deliberately mock Islam. No, I just believe it’s wrong. In fact, if there were a terrorist group threatening credibly to kill me if I didn’t publish images mocking the Prophet, I still wouldn’t do it. Because I DO believe in freedom of expression just as much as the publishers of Charlie Hebdo, and adamantly insist on being guided by my own conscience in deciding what to publish.

If I were still editor of the editorial page of The State, I would today be saying much what the Post is saying. Freedom of expression, particularly political expression (including especially expressions with which I disagree, the sort that appears regularly in Charlie Hebdo) is a core principal of liberal democracy that cannot and must not be compromised. A newspaper must take a stand on that. But note that the Post, in that same editorial, is also making the point that I am making in this completely personal (not institutional) blog post, which addresses a side issue:

We have objected in the past to expressions that appear intended to gratuitously provoke or offend Muslims, particularly in European nations such as France, where a large Muslim population suffers from chronic discrimination and is the target of demagoguery by populist political parties. But such criticism does not justify censorship, much less violence.





65 thoughts on “Je ne suis pas Charlie

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    There was an interesting link from that Post editorial, to a piece by the late Christopher Hitchens savaging Yale University Press for removing images of Mohammed from a book about the famous Danish cartoons.

    Hitchens, one of the most famous and aggressive atheists of his time, is not one given to being an apologist for religion. But he was nothing if not intellectually honest, and he paused to note the original good intention of the Muslim objection to images of The Prophet:

    Now, the original intention of limiting the representation of Mohammed by Muslims (and Islamic fatwas, before we forget, have no force whatever when applied to people outside the faith) was the rather admirable one of preventing idolatry. It was feared that people might start to worship the man and not the god of whom he was believed to be the messenger. This is why it is crass to refer to Muslims as Mohammedans….

    I appreciated his making that point.

    1. Bob Amundson

      To me it is an idiomatic phrase that expresses my belief (and it looks like the belief of millions of others) that actions like this will not stop my right to freedom of speech. Taking the phrae literally, I agree with you.

  2. Jean Smolen

    I woke up this morning in a Spartacus mood, thinking all Western media should go “Je suis Charlie” and run every controversial cartoon Charlie Hebdo ever published. Then I read your post and came off my high dudgeon. Thanks for making me think again from a different perspective.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Quoting from Ross Douthat’s piece in the NYT:

    “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But do you insult millions of innocents in order to incidentally offend a few terrorists?

      If you’re a satirist and want to go after terrorists, mock terrorists. Mock them AS terrorists. Go after them for BEING terrorists. Make a clear point.

      Mocking the Prophet seems to me a pretty nonsensical, indirect, roundabout way of standing up to terrorism. It seems positively idiotic, in fact. I don’t see any purpose, noble or otherwise, it can possibly accomplish.

      If a terrorist says, “I will kill you if you punch your little sister in the face,” should you punch your sister in the face? According to Douthat’s logic, you should…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        No, I think you need “a large enough group”. I don’t think one person is sufficient.

        But your point about doing what is right for it’s own sake makes sense. You don’t have to say “I am Charlie”.

        As long as you’re OK with Charlie saying what he wants to say, that’s fine. We don’t all have to be Charlie. However, if a group is trying to use violence as a means to effect self-censorship, then many people engaging in the offensive behavior makes less of a target than a single person doing it. It’s the “Spartacus” effect that Jean referenced.

        Your point about offending many innocents to offend a group of radicals is also well-taken. However, the millions of people who are “offended” but aren’t going to kill you or do anything…so…what? Are they damaged? Are you?

        When someone blasphemes, who’s damaged? The believer who is shocked, the blasphemer who commits the offense (and therefore is lowered in the eyes of that deity), the deity itself, or others?

        It’s almost the text-book example of a victimless crime, isn’t it?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Who is harmed? Let’s get theological…

          Going back to the Hitchens quote:

          Now, the original intention of limiting the representation of Mohammed by Muslims (and Islamic fatwas, before we forget, have no force whatever when applied to people outside the faith) was the rather admirable one of preventing idolatry. It was feared that people might start to worship the man and not the god of whom he was believed to be the messenger. This is why it is crass to refer to Muslims as Mohammedans…

          Under the assumption underlying this stricture against images, I suppose the person who is harmed could be the believer who is tempted into idolatry by the image. Theoretically.

          But I really think the victim of such boorishness is civil society in the aggregate. Civilized, mature people don’t mock other people’s faith because that creates completely unnecessary ill feeling between people. It’s a barrier to understanding and empathy; it creates hurt feelings and anger where there doesn’t need to be any. (On one extreme, of course, it could radicalize someone who was not so inclined before.)

          And basically, you’re just a really immature s__t to do it, bottom line. So yeah, you do damage yourself, coarsening yourself and making yourself a less worthy person.

          This all takes me back to my old “Grownup Party” column. A similar situation helped inspire it.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Let me quickly add that, having now read the piece, Douthat makes many very good and wise points as well. (In other words, he makes many of the points I make above, and does so well.) But the one you quote, assiduously applied, is foolish and wrong.

      One should consider whether something is worth doing independently of whether you place yourself in danger by doing it. Don’t let the danger get you to thumping your chest and making decisions you would not otherwise make, just in order to SHOW THEM they can’t push YOU around….

  4. Robert Ariail

    Thanks for the post, Brad. I remember we had similar discussions back at The State following the events of September 11th. I agree with all that you say here, but, still, “Je sues Charlie ” because I stand with all cartoonists and satirists for freedom of expression ( even though I would never employ the style of satire used in Charlie Hebdo.)

    By the way, I believe the criticism over the burka/page cartoon first came from the Washington, DC offices of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. They had no idea what I was talking about except they didn’t like my using burqas in the cartoon.

  5. bud

    I call bulls***! As long as I live I’ll never forget the thoroughly disgusting and cruel Arial cartoon making fun of a race horse’s suffering. That was the most insensitive piece of crap I’ve ever seen on any editorial page.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, OK, Bud.

      Like I said earlier in the main post, there is someone out there offended by every cartoon, which is unfortunate but unavoidable…

      The cartoon to which you refer made a completely legitimate and clear reference to the well-known and well-understood expression, “beating a dead horse.” And it fit the situation perfectly.

      1. Mark Stewart

        Thanks for the link. I read Bud’s comment and I thought “he did what?” But after seeing it, I laughed – even all these years later. It’s political satire – it has not much at all to do with race horses, and everything to do with political horse races. Geez…

        1. bud

          Mark, it was the timing of the cartoon that made it so offensive. It was published just days after a famous racehorse suffered a grouse injury in triple crown race. Arial exploited that tragedy and Brad ran with it. Whatever point they were trying to make was lost because of the timing. If someone had made a similar point after a human tragedy everyone would easily recognize the tastelessness of it.

  6. M.Prince

    “Je suis Charlie.“

    It’s nothing more than a simple way of expressing solidarity — solidarity with the victims of senseless violence – not blanket approval of what they did.

    Nothing more need be said than that. The rest is just hair-splitting.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Not for me. As someone who has been so intimately involved with editorial cartooning for so long, I’m acutely aware that I am NOT Charlie.

      And since a blog is about sharing my own particular take on things, especially based on whatever insights I might have to share that you won’t get elsewhere, I thought it important to share the reasons why I say that.

      In this viral, twitchy age, people pile on and do a LOT of things that perhaps made them feel good and warm, but don’t really bear close scrutiny.

      It is essential to stand up for freedom of expression. Warm and fuzzy as it is, #jesuischarlie isn’t the best way to do it.

      To hark back to a previous thread, this is another case in which bumper-sticker aphorisms are inadequate. If it fits on a bumper sticker, it most likely doesn’t hold up to scrutiny…

      1. M.Prince

        I disagree with you in multiple ways. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to go into it in detail right now, maybe another day. But just a couple of points, briefly:

        As an American, I occasionally felt insulted, even incensed, by some of the editorial page cartoons I saw in German newspapers during the height of the Iraq War. But, taking a step back, I had to admit that it’s not the job of the editorial cartoonist to take my (or your) sensibilities, or for that matter community values into consideration. Charlie Hebdo took an aggressively and sometimes harshly irreverent view of a great many social actors, from politicians to religious figures and even the press itself. It pushed the boundaries of good taste and maybe of free expression itself. But that’s where these things get tested, along with our commitment to them.

        Secondly, and perhaps more importantly right now: As Tom Tooles said on last night’s NewsHour, there may be a time for the kind of discussion you initiated in your blog post. But that time is not now. You don’t pay tribute to someone by saying, yes, she’s such a great person – except for the time she cheated on that test. You don’t eulogize someone by saying, great guy, except for that time he got mad and kicked his dog. On September 12, 2001, Le Monde declared, “Nous sommes tous Américans” (We are all Americans). No doubt there some Frenchmen (and other Europeans) who may not have felt that way in their hearts, but they held their reservations for another day.

        1. Brad Warthen

          One of these days, M. Prince is going to agree with me on something, and I will declare a blog holiday. Seriously, I greatly appreciate and respect M’s contributions, and would love someday to have at a moment in which I get it right in M’s estimation.

          M, you are quite right about the moment. As I think I said elsewhere, were I still in the role of EPE at The State, I would see it as my duty to express the proper sentiment, making it all about Charlie’s sacred right to free expression, and how we who love liberal democracy must stand together, etc.

          But I no longer have that institutional duty, and millions of others are saying the appropriate, pious things. So here in my own little corner of the world, I’m exercising my personal freedom of expression to go against the grain and point out the things that everyone else is too polite to say.

          In that one way, je suis Charlie…

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    One more point:

    Again, I’m disappointed that our poster child for free expression is something so silly and unsavory. I complained before at having something as absurd as “The Interview” be our rallying point.

    Why can’t we once have a situation in which somebody has written something true and right and noble and brave, something that seriously needs to be said, and is doing so in the face of a repressive regime that is trying to keep the truth from being known?

    Instead of stuff like this and this and this, stuff that makes a thoughtful, mature person want to hold his nose while stepping wearily forth to say, “Yes, people even have the right to say THIS…”

    Freedom of expression is a noble thing. Just once, I’d like to be asserting the principle in defense of some expression that is also noble…

    1. Harry Harris

      Please don’t hold me to your idea of what is “true and right and noble and brave.” Thou who defendest Robert Arail as some sort of necessary literary contributor who never distorts, attacks, or perpetuates disinformation and political straw men. Mr. Prince’s statement rings true to me. Expressing solidarity only with those we see as approaching perfection (especially in their agreement with our views) leads to the kind of Balkanization of our society that keeps us unable to seek and advance on common ground. Despite my (and your) blindspot on religious matters, I take sides with the slain French cartoonists despite my distaste with much of what they express and the way they express it.

    2. Mark Stewart

      The defense of freedom of expression is never over noble things. It is always over the incendiary and the mean. That said, after looking at Facebook once this morning I gave up on it; I really had no interest in being bombarded with the crudest examples of the French cartoonists’ work – since I had never seen their stuff before.

      Solidarity is also something I don’t much care for and is just a fancy word for the impulses of the crowd. Society and civic order are built on something much more flexible and durable.

      I guess I have no patience for (false) black and white dichotomies. The world is a multi-hued place. Some of them are the darkest shades of vile evil, of course.

      The Islamic world has a lot of reckoning to do with itself; it is suffering under a near total breakdown as its own infidels have hijacked and perverted the entire religion. There isn’t much the West can do, except to remain focused on our strongest, most generous, and most noble ideals. Those don’t include lining up blindly behind “Je suis Charlie.“

    3. M.Prince

      “Again, I’m disappointed that our poster child for free expression is something so silly and unsavory.”

      Yes, well that’s the point: You don’t get to pick and choose who will be the poster child for whatever the issue may be. Michael Brown may not have been the perfect poster child for the issues that event stands for, but that’s just how the world is: often messy and awkward.

  8. Brad Warthen

    I saw today that Charlie plans to put out a million copies of its next issue (its circulation is normally about 55,000, I think). That makes sense, in light of current interest in it.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have posted on @Charlie_Hebdo_ since the attack, which is surprising. Maybe the person who normally Tweeted was killed. But regardless of that, at a moment such as this, I would expect someone to seize the situation and keep the info flowing. In such a crisis, I’d expected the pace of Tweets to increase dramatically. So I’m surprised…

  9. Doug Ross

    Off topic, I know, but do ever stop and consider, Brad, that you produce more meaningful commentary in a day than The State’s editorial page does in a week? And that it results in more meaningful debate than a year’s worth of letters to the editor? Why don’t they understand that?

  10. Mike Cakora

    Brad wrote: “True journalistic courage and integrity lies in willingness to skewer the powerful — the people who hold sway over our lives.”

    Who are those folks? Who today holds sway over our lives?

    It’s not just about the images that Charlie Hebdo published, it’s about any and all criticism of Islam.

    We in the West are the beneficiaries of a robust philosophical heritage that started in Greece, ran through Rome, informed Christians who developed a creed that was further refined (and expanded) by Europe’s philosophers into several schools of rational thought, at least one of which centered on the concept of the individual and the rights and liberty of the individual, separate and apart from the any notion of class, birthright, and such. From this mélange springs recognition of individual rights, the rule of law, and other notions that those not of the West have difficulty appreciating. (I am deferring any explication of the role of the Anglosphere just to keep the discussion brief.)

    Thus we who are inculcated with the values (logic and philosophy) of the West are poorly equipped to recognize the evil that confronts us. That evil stopped its intellectual development around the eleventh century, at which point ours was in its adolescence. Heck, we still burned witches for six or seven hundred more years. But we progressed intellectually / rationally and moved from a ruler-subject paradigm to one of individual liberty. (I don’t mean to ignore the Marx Engels class-conflict model, but that’s one that has been proved a wrong turn.)

    Is “evil” too strong a word? I think not if one considers the ritual physical mutilation of women, murder of rape victims, and other indignities inflicted on females. The prescribed stoning of homosexuals strikes me as rather extreme too.

    There are no doubt Muslims who do not adhere to the extremes practiced by the headline-grabbers, but they too cower so as not to attract the attention of and retribution from the extreme Islamicists.

    We need to keep in mind the words of Lee Harris:

    “Our first task is therefore to try to grasp what the concept of the enemy really means. The enemy is someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the enemy always hates us for a reason, it is his reason, and not ours”.

    Finally, don’t you think it’s a hoot that media that publicized works like Piss Christ and Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary Dung write anything about the cartoons Charlie Hebdo? They only support the actions that the British Government has taken in prosecuting those who destroy copies of the Koran. What kind of irony is it when one may destroy any book in the United Kingdom without penalty but one? Maybe “irony” is the wrong word, likely “cowardice” is.

  11. Rusty Inman

    While I understand—though certainly do not completely agree with—your perspective as to why you “are not Charlie,” I do have questions per just how often you picked up a copy of Charlie Hebdo and leafed through it. Perhaps you frequented its pages as often as I have and, if that is the case, I have even more disagreement with your understanding of its satirical takes on Islam—and, well, everything else on the planet—as primarily being mockery as opposed to satire. There can be a thin line between the two—indeed, when there is not, the satirical side suffers—and Charlie was not always athletic enough to avoid falling over onto the mockery side of the line but, more often than not, sharp, biting satire (of the sort to which Americans are most definitely not accustomed) was the order of the day.

    I would also suggest that deeper thought be given to the way in which the phrase Je Suis Charlie is functioning in the worlds of both social media and western culture-at-large. Its meaning for “the masses,” for lack of a better term, might be a bit different from the meaning it has for you as a journalist who is critiquing the journalistic approach of Charlie Hebdo. My real guess is that, for most of us, it represents solidarity against acts of terror that take advantage of available freedoms in the attempt to compromise them.

    That said, my greatest concern is actually with another element of how the journalistic world functions—something with which I am not particularly familiar and, thus, the simplicity or simple-mindedness of my comment/question: Most of us are, of course, horrified by the events in Paris. That they are newsworthy is beyond question. However, as we were transfixed by the 24/7 coverage given those events, an estimated 100 or so people were indiscriminately slaughtered by Boko Haram militants in a northeastern Nigerian village. In that same story to which journalism-in-general was giving zero attention, it was noted that Boko Haram was responsible for the killing of over 10,000 innocents in 2014, not to mention the other atrocities for which it is well-known. Hence, my question: What goes into deciding what gets 24/7 coverage and what gets incidental mention? Public interest? Western Europe v. Africa? The question is not intended to be critical but inquisitive. What does go into deciding that the killings in Paris are deserving of intense attention while the killings in the badlands of northeast Nigeria are, well, not?

    1. Mike Cakora

      Rusty – Nobody cares enough to risk anything to stop the murders. Besides, the Charlie Hebdo murders and pursuit of the perps has sucked up all the media oxygen for the week.

      We had the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls for the Boko Haram kidnappees that did what is was designed to do: allow people to express concern without expending one drop of blood or a cent of treasure. Perhaps the State Department should set up a Deputy Assistant UnderSecretary for Worldwide Concern who could generate and disseminate a hashtag for each slaughter these murderous brigands spawn.

      There’s one other big story that’s being ignored: Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called on Muslim religious clerics to lead a religious revolution to stop the focus on violence that Modern Islam has become.

      “I am referring here to the religious clerics. … It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (Islamic world) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
      “That thinking — I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world! … All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.
      “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.”

      So far the response to el-Sisi’s speech has been “crickets,” but I’m sure he’ll continue to speak out about it, maybe even tweet a bit after his team comes up with the right hashtag. For as long as he lives.

      He’s careful to state that Islam the religion is not the problem, but that the “thinking” is. That distinction may let him avoid the charge of heresy, but it’s way too early to tell.

      1. Rusty Inman

        While my question was, as I noted, quite probably either simplistic or simple-minded, it did not necessarily follow that I was either simplistic or simple-minded. That “pursuit of the perps has sucked up all the media oxygen for the week” doesn’t tell my anything about why “the media” chooses to expend its collective breath per one issue at the expense of another.

        I suppose I have a more redemptive perspective on, uh, hashtag solidarity. I view it less as a government-sponsored anesthetic than as a movement of sorts that arises out of and unites a collective of momentarily like-minded/like-hearted souls who are suddenly made more proximate by a simple internet symbol.

        It is, I suspect, a mistake to imagine that, because #BringBackOurGIrls did not actually Bring Back Our Girls, it was devoid of accomplishment. Millions of people who were, like me, helpless to do anything else, displayed that hashtag. One of them was an elderly woman in her 80’s who, for several weeks, attended church wearing a sticker on her Sunday dress that displayed the hashtag. When I asked her why she was wearing it, she told me that, while she could do nothing else, she could, at least, do that. And thus did my little 87 year-old mother establish what was, to her, an important connection with all sorts of people in all sorts of places around the world. Which is, to her and to me, no small matter.

        I had, indeed, read bits and pieces of el-Sisi’s “call to arms” per “the religious clerics” and it most certainly deserved media coverage that it has not received. Its biggest problem, however, is the possibility that much of the violence termed “Islamic terrorism” and supposedly done in the name of Islam is nothing of the sort. It is just violence given a convenient context. Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, ISIS and various elements of al-Qaeda are by-and-large composed of the same sort as the two brothers who terrorized Paris—unemployed, disaffected, angry young men whose need to lash out is suddenly given a pathological religious and social imprimatur. True believers these two were not.

        1. Mike Cakora

          I did not mean to disparage your remarks by mine, dripping with cynicism as they were.

          As to whether the perps are true believers or disaffected youth operating under a flag of convenience is immaterial. They acted as though they were serious and certainly had some outside assistance in preparing themselves to inflict harm. In other words they got enough attention and exhibited sufficient zeal to be provided with training, potent weaponry, transportation, and other assistance not yet known. Whatever the motivation, we can expect those who wish to do us harm to be able to find willing agents capable of carrying out attacks. Count on that.

          Finally, as for the hashtag phenomenon, I judge it useless unless it’s connected to some action designed to achieve some goal. Unless one wants the world to laugh at the US, the first lady should not be photographed with a #BringBackOurGIrls sign unless there’s some planning and activity covertly underway to bring about the desired end within a relatively short time span. Doing otherwise makes us and our capabilities look trivial and impotent to the perps the hashtag was intended to influence. Most often those perps understand only force delivered up close and personal.

          Don’t hashtag unless you’re about to deliver such a message, good and hard. That’s life. And death.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Rusty, there are a number of reasons why the Paris story got far more play than the Nigeria one. The ones you inuit — “Public interest? Western Europe v. Africa?” — are a big part of it.

      First, Americans are generally uninterested in what is happening abroad, period. And American media understand that, and cater to it. For that matter, most American journalists, being Americans themselves, are little interested in foreign affairs. Before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, which at least created SOME interest in the place, the term in the trade for a story that was too remote and esoteric to interest readers was “Afghanistan.” For that matter, even though we’ve been at war there for 13 years, how much interest does the American public actually show in Afghanistan and what really goes on there, beyond taking a mild interest in when our departure date?

      What happened in Paris had a number of elements that grabbed American interest far more urgently than the African development. First, some foreign places are less foreign than others. Americans know where Paris is, and have some sense of the place — whereas if they thing of Nigeria, they probably lump it into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

      And just as historically your average American has been more shocked by violence in a wealthy neighborhood than in a poor black one in his or her own city, the Paris attack killed “people like us” in the eyes of the white middle class. I remember, a number of years ago at a reception, the wife of a prominent white SC politician made a telling remark to my wife. This was at the height of the violence in the Balkans, back in the 90s. Referring to that, she said it was awful — this violence involved normal-looking people; “they don’t wear robes or anything.” She was serious.

      Beyond that, this could clearly be seen as an attack on “us” — that is to say, the West.

      Next — and never underestimate this — it occurred in a place with plenty of modern news media, not to mention millions of people with video cameras on their phones. Big news has a way of happening where there’s lots of media. Something just as terrible in less observed place sort of by definition gets less attention.

      There was an issue involved that was clear in the average person’s mind (although, as I’ve tried to point out in this post, the issue isn’t as simple as the jesuischarlie hashtag would have it.) For most people in the West, this was clearly a matter of the medieval jihadists striking out at the liberal values Westerners hold dear. What’s going on in Nigeria is murkier by contrast.

      Finally, you have to consider how news stories develop these days. Almost no editors or news directors are presented with an opportunity to make an untainted, clear, academic judgment comparing two stories. By the time most editors today are in a position to make a decision, the story that is going to go viral has already done so. One doesn’t have to IMAGINE what readers are interested in; you can already see it by the reaction online. On a story like this, the feedback loop is already spinning by the time an editor writes the first headline on it. That loop keeps spinning over the next couple of days, and you can SEE in real time whether interest is continuing. The thing feeds on itself, with or without the involvement of editorial judgment as we exercised it back before the Web.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I laughed when I saw a documentary once that set out — seriously, and without irony — Noam Chomsky’s paranoid delusions about the media’s reasons for ignoring events in East Timor. He insisted that it was because the media are part of a right-wing conspiracy to help the U.S. government oppress other peoples.

        It was so ridiculous on its face. As one of those rare editors who at least makes SOME effort to keep up with foreign affairs, even I had to look up to see where the hell East Timor was. Of course, Chomsky would say that’s because the NYT and AP and others who have assets in far-away places were making sure I didn’t know about it.

        (I saw the film because I was asked by a group at USC to come see it and serve on a panel to discuss it afterward. Imagine my surprise to find that everyone else in the room found Chomsky’s position credible. It’s amazing, the things ideologues will believe.)

        Stories that occur in obscure parts of the world don’t get much play because they occur in (to American eyes) obscure parts of the world. Period.

        And the City of Lights is less obscure to Americans than other places are.

  12. M.Prince

    Still short on time. But I wanted to commend to your attention the following commentary:

    In particular the following paragraph:

    “There is an old Parisian tradition of cheeky humor that respects nothing and no one. The French even have a word for it: “gouaille.” Think of obscene images of Marie-Antoinette and other royals, of priests in flagrante delicto with nuns, of devils farting in the pope’s face and Daumier’s caricatures of King Louis-Philippe, whom he portrayed in the shape of a pear. It’s an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful. Such satirical humor has little in common with the kind of witty political satire with which Americans are familiar today through watching Jon Stewart or John Oliver. While not apolitical (attacks on Marie-Antoinette surely had a political valence), gouaille does not seek to stake out a political position or mock one political party to the benefit of another. It is directed, rather, against authority in general, against hierarchy and against the presumption that any individual or group has exclusive possession of the truth.”

    Humor, let alone satire, is not the same the whole world round.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, absolutely. As I noted above, I look on this from across a cultural chasm.

      I think the French sensibility on such things is one reason why I’m more of a John Adams fan than a Thomas Jefferson fan (Jefferson being a Francophile and admirer of the revolution, Adams being more comfortable dealing with the Brits).

      But then, in those days, our own journalism had more than a touch of the French approach. Over time, we got away from that. France stayed on that road.

      You also have to understand that I spent many years editing what we refer to as “a family newspaper” when we’re explaining to a reporter or photographer why this obscenity or that image doesn’t make the cut. The challenge was always to get the point across without having Mom and Dad have a stroke when their kids see it on the kitchen table…

      So to some extent I have the sensibilities (when it comes to considering things for publication) of what Tom Wolfe mocked as the Victorian Gent, his term for the colonial animal that is the U.S. press…

      1. M.Prince

        Not to fear. We agreed at least once – and recently: with regard to ”Selma“.

        But y’know, if you’d written something along the lines of, “I differ on principle with the kind of humor Charlie Hebdo engages in, but yes, je suis Charlie aussi,” that would have been perfectly acceptable. To those who say that the expression is lacking in nuance, I say, yes, of course it is. It has to. But that does not mean that those who embrace it are mindless in their embrace. In fact, I’d reverse that and say that it’s actually the critics who are oversimplifying by assuming that the throngs of “Charlies” out there are unaware of what Charlie Hebdo is. In doing so, it seems to me what the critics are really doing is nothing more than a sort of boastful yet superficial sophistication. Should Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire be given free rein, finding a place in your “family newspaper” or the like? No, of course not. (Though I’ve seen Carnival floats in Germany bearing large figures of Merkel in the buff or one politician doing the dirty with another one – stuff that’s unlikely to make it into an American Mardi Gras parade.) But that does not mean there isn’t a place for this sort of thing somewhere in the broad spectrum of expression.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I doubt it. But if the organizers were trying to make a point by leaving her out, I don’t know what the point was.

          Unless it was just about not wanting to hear THIS bit:

          Here, where the Confederate flag still flies
          beside the Statehouse, haunted by our past,
          conflicted about the future; at the heart
          of it, we are at war with ourselves

          Not very “It’s a great day in South Carolina!”

          Didn’t know we HAD a poet laureate. How does one run for that?

          What do y’all think of her poem? Seems rather prosaic to me, the imagery and messages too plain and obvious and lacking in pretentious profundity. Maybe the organizers are poetry snobs, the sort who sneer at Poe. But then, at least Poe had a driving rhythm…

          1. M.Prince

            Maybe it was those lines. But I thought it was more likely these:

            “at Gadsden’s Wharf, where 100,000
            Africans were imprisoned within brick walls
            awaiting auction, death, or worse.
            Where the dead were thrown into the water,

            and the river clogged with corpses
            has kept centuries of silence.
            It is time to gather at the water’s edge,
            and toss wreaths into this watery grave.”

            Maybe somebody considered that sort of imagery too much a downer — crapping on the governor’s own great day in South Carolina.

            1. M.Prince

              Excellent suggestion! Completely concur. Newman’s nouveau antiquarian sound would be the perfect fit. His quirky crankiness would lighten the gloom, lending the text just the right touch of sweet irony while keeping the sting fresh.
              Get that commission out to Mr. Newman pronto! (There’s gonna hafta be a hefty fee goes with it, though, ’cause I doubt he’d do a gig for this particular Guv for just peanuts.)

  13. Brad Warthen Post author

    Interestingly, I just heard on NPR that JenesuispasCharlie is now a thing on Twitter. Explained as the hashtag for people who want to say they stand firmly against brutal murders and for freedom of expression, without endorsing the way Charlie used that freedom.

    So I’m far from alone…

    1. Juan Caruso

      Math-challenged journalists and politicians have been far from alone historically.

      France’s population is about 10% Muslim. France’s prison population is already 60 % Muslim.
      Stemming the immigrant tide is an existentialist problem for France.

      We may have our own opinions about je suis ou je ne suis pas Charlie, but must not disregard what Hebdo, a weekly with a circulation of only 30,000, plans (with direct support from Google and three major French news organizations, including Le Monde:

      “‘Charlie Hebdo’ Will Print 1M Copies Of Its Next Issue” Note: The typical print run for Hebdo is only 60,000.

      As recently as 1683, one-way Muslims (our way or you pay) tried to takeover Europoe by seizing Vienna. Only convincing victories have ever given Muhammad’s followers a pause in their neverending quest for caliphatic world conquest.

      Feigning moral superiority by not speaking against them now will only allow them to grow stronger and more disdainful of infidels. When your grandchildren must submit to their barbaristic superiority
      today’s reluctant elitest will have neither have to budge in pathetic graves under grandiose memorials nor face the blight of humanity.

      The time for free peoples to stand up is now. The time to fault the je suis Charlies and French was never (particularly for non-French citizens).

      For those capable of noting historical trends, before the Ottoman Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Ottoman Empire banned the sale or importation of images of Muhammad in 1900. In other words, the development of a “new testament” for followers of Muhammad has been an immutable problem for Qurannic infidels.

  14. Phillip

    Of course, Brad, you ARE Charlie, whether you acknowledge it or not, and that would be the case regardless of your own personal distaste for Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire (and I might well share it…I’m frankly not well-acquainted with it in detail). You and I may disagree about the wisdom of steps the US has taken since 9/11 in response to radical Islamic terrorism as fomented by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the like…but surely your opposition to such radical Islamist terrorism (as expressed by your support of vigorous actions to defeat it) would not exist but for your “being” Charlie Hebdo, in the sense of the ideals of human freedom of thought and expression that you wish to see upheld and expanded throughout the world.

    To say “Je suis Charlie” need not be, contrary to Mark’s point, “lining up blindly” behind that magazine’s specific content. Mark had it right when he said that “the defense of freedom of expression is never over noble things.” The hardest path to follow is to vigorously assert the freedom of expression for even the uglier and less noble aspects of our humanity. Sure, many of us can agree that we find Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamic cartoons offensive, but is this the time to make that point any more than 9/11 was the time for us to decry the overall cultural/economic imperialism signified by many of the companies that occupied offices in the two WTC buildings or the US as a whole? And, are we to say that cartoons mocking the Prophet or the Muslim religion are any more offensive than “sober” statements by some of our leading political figures that the Islamic religion as a whole is inherently violent, or that we are engaged in a religious war as Lindsey Graham would have us believe? Or more offensive than being OK with all men of a certain “eligible” age being killed alongside terrorist targets in drone attacks in Pakistan as probable or potential terrorists?

    If we say we only “are” those whose opinions and ideas we agree with or at least feel to be within the bounds of civility or good taste, that hardly affirms our belief (or our confidence) in the fundamental human right to freedom of expression. #JeSuisAllTheMostOffensiveIdeasAndCommentsI’veEverReadOnThisOrAnyBlogAnywhere

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Nicely played. I didn’t see that one coming. And I didn’t see it because I don’t think that’s consistent with what Graham has said in the past.

          To elaborate, here’s the context:

          I think the President of the United States is undercutting the president of Egypt. We’re in a religious war. These are not terrorists. They’re radical Islamists who are trying to replace our way of life with their way of life. Their way of life is motivated by religious teachings that require me and you to be killed, or enslaved, or converted. The President of the United States tip-toes around the threats we face, and he is trying to diminish the religious aspect of this war. Why? I don’t know. And he is not engaging the enemy in an aggressive fashion, which makes it more likely we’ll get attacked. What he’s doing is pretending to want to destroy ISIL when in fact, he’s trying to get out of office without having to commit American ground forces to do the job as part of a team in the region, because he made a campaign promise. His campaign promises, Hugh, are getting a lot of people killed….

          …this is not a cartoon problem. Our way of life doesn’t fit into their scheme of how the world should be. If you stopped talked about radical Islam, if you never did a cartoon again, that’s not enough. What people need to get is they can’t be accommodated. They can’t be negotiated with. They have to be eventually destroyed. And the way you destroy them over time is to have the people within the religion turn on them, have the capability to keep them at bay within the countries where they exist. That requires capacity building. That requires partnerships. But the way you defeat radical Islam is the way the KKK was defeated. People in the South over time turned against them. They got more educated. They rejected the extreme philosophy. And we’re going to have to invest in countries and people that would reject radical Islam, side with them, partner with them to keep the war over there….

          Anyway, there’s still plenty there to disagree with. But I stand by what I MEANT, which is that Graham doesn’t think it’s a religious war the way jihadists think it is. In fact, he believes the solution lies within Islam, or within the Ummah.

          But he could certainly stand to express himself better…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            For instance, he says “These are not terrorists.” Say WHAT? You know he doesn’t believe THAT.

            He just gets on his “Obama’s not looking out for us and we’re all gonna die” thing and it’s like he’s not even listening to himself.

            And he’s smarter and better than that.

            A decade ago, I had asked for some time with Graham during the 2004 Republican Convention in New York. His staff suggested I follow him around through Madison Square Garden while he did a series of talk-radio and TV appearances, and we could talk between sessions. I was really impressed by the way he managed to keep his poise and express himself intelligently and rationally from interview to interview, like a chess master playing multiple games at the same time.

            Lately, I wonder whether he’s lost some of that facility…

  15. bud

    Civilized, mature people don’t mock other people’s faith because that creates completely unnecessary ill feeling between people.

    Why limit the mockery to “faith”. To some faith is unimportant. Is mockery of some other principle besides faith any less worthy of protecting from mockery? If we are going to have an open, free society we must strive to allow and even promote the exchange of ideas even if our own sensibilities are threatened. This is even more important in the face of the events in Paris. Frankly in some ways Brad’s comments here could be construed as uncivilized and immature given the timing. But given the very principle at stake I will not condemn them.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It should be simple and obvious.

      There is nothing more obnoxious, nothing more insulting, nothing more dismissive of another human being, than obscenely mocking what he holds to be sacred, something that he values more than himself.

      My good friend Samuel Tenenbaum gives fair warning to all that there are three things you must not attack if you want to stay on his good side: “My wife, my Mama, and my religion.”

      That’s a good guideline.

      1. Juan Caruso

        Really obvious? A “religion” that aspires to world domination by its followers and requires submission of non adherents declares more aspects of a totalitarian political doctrine than of legitimate divinity.

        Roman Catholicism certainly has been guilty of the latter, as well.

        No religion is ever beyond reproach under our First Amendment.


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