Saturday, January 17, 2015

Charlie again...

Like just about everyone, for the past week I've been thinking a great deal about the fate of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the Paris magazine that published cartoons that many in the Muslim community found brutally offensive and blasphemous. The more I think about it, the closer I come to the conclusion that the publication of those cartoons, which cost nine members of the magazine and three police officers their lives, was utterly pointless.

Now let me make it clear that I'm a staunch defender of freedom of speech, religion, assembly and of the press. For that reason, back in the seventies I supported an Illinois State Supreme Court decision that allowed neo-Nazis to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. Mind you, I was also prepared to shed not a single tear in the event that any harm might befall the marchers in the predominantly Jewish village. It turned out the march never took place, as the Nazis in the end turned out to be either too cowardly, or too sensible to go through with it.

I understand that comparing Charlie to a bunch of Nazis is a bit of a stretch but please bear with me.

There is little question that many of Charlie's cartoons were offensive, even racist. The editors got around that issue by publishing cartoons that were offensive to many different groups, especially the religious. Few it seemed, were spared the wrath of Charlie

As everybody knows by now, Charlie was made up of writers and cartoonists who had been performing their craft since the heady days of the sixties. They considered themselves up until the time of their deaths, to be radical leftists, and their work reflected the disdain of social mores that was the rallying cry of their youth. The inheritors of a long history of crude satire in France, Charlie's target back in the day was the establishment. Just as their ancestors in the craft made profane and scatalogical images of royalty and the leaders of the Church, the pens of Charlie focused on those in power: politicians, captains of industry, and of course as always, the Church. The forebear of Charlie, a magazine called, Hara-kiri, was officially banned after it made fun of the death of French icon, former President Charles de Galle. The mocking of sacred cows has been the raison d'être of Charlie ever since it sprung up from the ashes of Hara-kiri in 1970.

In the sixties, young people, raised in the relative prosperity of the times, became disillusioned with society. Fed up with the status quo, they called out the wrongs they saw in society: racism, sexism, the war in Vietnam, uptight and hypocritical views on sex and drugs, the list goes on and on. The anti-establishment work of individuals such as cartoonist Robert Crumb, writer William S. Burroughs, LSD guru Timothy Leary, and  radical organizations like the Black Panthers, and the S.D.S. served as beacons for at least some of the Baby Boomer generation, who saw themselves as particularly enlightened compared to the people of the generation that proceeded them, namely their parents. This is precisely the mileu in which Charlie Hebdo flourished. Like the British comedy sextet Monty Python, Charlie Hebdo ridiculed the institutions their parents held dear such as government, patriotism, the class system, and religion.

This gets to the very nature of satire and its power as a tool for social change.

Thanks in part to Charlie and its like-minded brethren in establishment bashing, the world did begin to change. They were helped along by the corruption, arrogance and incompetence of the highest magnitude on the part of those in power, and the relentless pursuit of them by the press. The net result of the turbulent sixties and seventies was the creation of a new, and exceedingly cynical generation, mine, one that questions everything and holds little sacred. My generation, raised on Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and Charlie Hebdo, is the one that currently holds most of the power in the western world today.

Sorry about that.

Our overriding cynicism transcends ideology; no politician on the left or right, could succeed in this day and age by taking him/herself, or anything for that matter too seriously. Today in the U.S., if you aspire to higher office, you have to make the rounds and play stupid pet tricks on Letterman, SNL or Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. In other words, in the West, every politician has to understand, if not necessarily like the language of Charlie.

The one thing my generation does hold sacred, is our liberty. We may disagree over the rights of individuals versus the collective rights of all, but we do all like freedom of speech, especially when it comes to our own speech.

As with any ideal with devoted followers, there are those who take their belief system to extremes, wrapping themselves around dogmatic minutiae to the point of losing sight of the core, fundamental basis of those values. This holds true with the devotees of liberty as much as it does with followers of any religion.

The men who committed the murders in Paris last week took their religion to the most extreme point possible. As a result, their acts not only profane humanity, but also subvert and profane Islam and all religion. These are not my words but the words of countless Muslims, including the leader of the radical organization, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is my sincere belief that the publishers of Charlie Hebdo also took the one thing they held sacred, their own freedom of speech, to such extremes that they lost sight of the deeper meaning of that liberty. Granted, they didn't kill anyone directly, but we all saw the result of their acts of publishing the offensive cartoons. The editors, cartoonists and publishers certainly knew the risk they were taking, and innocent lives were lost along with their own. After the tragic events a week ago Wednesday, cartoonists in solidarity with Charlie including Robert Crumb, felt compelled to publish their own profane images of the Prophet Muhammad. This week, the survivors of Charlie, published yet another cartoon of Muhammad, this time wearing a "Je suis Charlie" button.

And like clockwork, the reaction of much of the Muslim world who did not grow up with the same cynical values we did, has been predictable.

Like the issue of the Nazis in Skokie, I support the right to publish those cartoons, but not for a second do I endorse them.

I can't help be reminded of an incident that happened in our family a long time ago. I don't know how it started but one Thanksgiving, my grandmother and my uncle got into a terrible fight, the screams of which reverberated through our entire house via the heating ducts. The subject of the argument was this: which one of them suffered more during the war. My uncle, a bombardier shot down over Romania in 1944, was captured and held prisoner of war for about six months. My grandmother, recently widowed, had to live with the fact that she might have lost her only son as well as her husband. Obviously both of them suffered a great deal during the experience, and on the surface, the argument was stupid and pointless.

But like all conflicts between human beings, this flight wasn't really about the subject at hand, but about the entire relationship between the individuals and all the baggage that came with it. The sad part was that neither my uncle nor my grandmother were able to empathize with the other, neither could see or even be willing to imagine the other person's perspective.

Likewise, the folks who are offended by the Charlie cartoons don't know (or care about) the history of French satire, the context in which the cartoonists grew up, or the fact that the cartoonists don't particularly link themselves with the anti-Islamic Western establishment. What they do see are cartoons that ridicule and demean the thing that is most sacred to them, drawn by old white men, the very embodiment of the anti-Islamic establishment.

For their part, the Charlies, with their privileged backgrounds and disdain of anything that reeks of religiosity, cannot (or care to) grasp the lives of the powerless. Their one-size-fits-all world view does not conveniently fit in with the views of  the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised, for whom faith is a transcendental source of hope and inspiration.

What the Charlies of the world have so far failed to grasp is the fact that satire is effective as the tool of the powerless against the establishment, but does not work very well the other way around.

As their one and only accomplishment to date in this conflict, Charlie Hebdo at least for the time being, has made bed-fellows of the pro free-speech-at-whatever-cost left, and the xenophobic right in Europe, in the spewing of anti-Islamic rhetoric. I pointed out in my last post, that this plays right into the hands of extremist Islamic organizations such as al Qaeda and ISIS, in their attempts to recruit people into their ideals of global jihad. Nothing that has transpired since has tempered my feelings.

I don't see any of this turning out at all well, at least in the near future. Perhaps time will heal the wounds and thirty or forty years hence, we'll all, (Muslim, Christian, Jew and Atheist), be able to sit down at the table together, and like my family who continues to this day to talk about the rift between my grandmother and my uncle, laugh about the conflict which for all intents and purposes, amounted to little more than a silly pissing contest.

One can only hope.

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