I have an essay in the current issue of Harper's Magazine on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, on the disgraceful reaction of the so-called left in the anglophone world, and on the importance of satire. It is behind a paywall, unfortunately, and I can't reproduce it here. As I've explained elsewhere, my concern in the essay was not to defend Charlie Hebdo with respect to form, or the abstract right to freedom of expression, but rather with respect to content. I have cringed over the past few months every time someone, in false presumption of agreement with me, has cited that apocryphal quotation from Voltaire about defending to the death your right to say what you say, while hating what you say. I'm not defending Charlie Hebdo's right to exist; I'm defending Charlie Hebdo. I've been thinking about this in relation to what I read some years ago from Arthur Danto in The Nation, back during the hubbub about Serrano's Piss Christ. He didn't say: I understand why people are upset, but we need to defend the right of artists to... etc. He said: With the stunning golden light filtering over the cross, Serrano pays homage to, and joins, the great crucifix painters in the history of art. Danto looks at the Mapplethorpe triptych of a man ejaculating in another's mouth, and says: What a profound examination of the theme of communion! In parallel fashion, I want to shift the discussion of Charlie Hebdo away from 'offense', and towards a greater awareness and appreciation of the venerable tradition of satire. The magazine has a mixed record; Charb in particular, of a younger generation and from a different world than the original équipe, had an unhealthy preoccupation with radical Islamism, and got caught up in a sort of flame war with the Islamists that eventually cost his colleagues their lives. By contrast the body of Wolinski's work, I believe, shines with humanity and sensitivity: virtues that are rooted in his experience as a Jew in France in the '68 era, and for which he was assassinated. Honestly, I read Wolinski and I do not think of the Front National. I think of Gargantua, and the Decameron, and Don Quixote: works that face up to the absurdity, fragility, and grotesquerie of human existence and of social life, rather than trying to screen these out, as authoritarians do. I'm an anti-authoritarian, and in this I take myself to be defending a particular strain of leftist politics. I think by contrast that the dominant strain of leftist politics at present, at least in the anglophone world, is frighteningly authoritarian, and deeply misguided.
On a somewhat related note, I recently talked to one of the people responsible for marketing American Sniper (and other Warner Bros. productions) to French audiences. "That must have been a challenge," I said, "with all the American jingoism and so on." Her reply? "French audiences appreciate films by talented directors that show the world from the perspective of morally compromised characters. They recognize that this is one of the highest aims of the cinematic art, and are mature enough to engage with a film at this level without agreeing with the political views of its maker." Honestly there are moments when I think to myself, "At last, I'm in a country for grown-ups."