I was contacted by France 24 to appear this evening to talk about the attack at Charlie Hebdo. I hesitated, and went to teach my three-hour course on Aristotle, in particular the part where he argues that God has no idea the world exists. By the time I finished teaching, they must have found some other hack pundit to fill the seat, so I went home. I had hesitated because I thought at first that there was nothing I could say that would not be platitudinous. Like: You can't just go around shooting people, especially when it's about cartoons.
But then after class I went and looked at an online archive of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and I apologize to the academics among you who think language and other symbolic acts can be violent in the same way shooting someone in the head with a machine gun is violent, but reviewing this work, with which I have long been passively familiar, my principal thought was: these cartoons are fucking great! Charb, in particular, is a genius. They have nothing in common with the uninspired image of Mohammed with a turban-bomb in the Jyllands-Posten, which is one of the distal causes of today's attack. They are light and joyous. They don't just condemn one way of looking at the world; they also celebrate another way. That way is the raunchy and ridiculous way, for which I have a deep personal fondness.
I've been disturbed over the evident lurch at Charlie Hebdo over the past few years from its longstanding commitment to French-style liberté de la parole and to exposing all species of rottenness, to an unhealthy obsession with the menace of Islam and the specter of a future 'Eurabia'. But as Marco Roth reminds today, Charlie Hebdo has not only published satirical cartoons aimed at radical Islam, they have also been "relentless in exposing corruption among French government officials, especially during the Chirac years, and also corruption among members of the Front National." We could also add the exposure of the inhumanity of the blockade of Gaza, bullfighting...
It's too easy to look at the recent Christmas cover, an awesome, disgusting image of Mary giving birth to Jesus, and to declare that no one will be murdered for that one. But I do think it's a great shame that political Islamism today perceives an equivalence between the symbolic and the real that make an act of vengeance of this scale seem like a fair trade. I recall that one horrible, amateur film ridiculing Mohammed a few years ago; they interviewed some kid in Egypt whose reaction was: 'Well, how would you feel if we made a movie making fun of, say, Abraham Lincoln?' He sincerely didn't understand that no one would care.
Today when the assassins were fleeing toward their getaway car, they shouted: On a vengé le prophète Mohammed. On a tué Charlie Hebdo. One cannot help but think: there is a double confusion here. Not just one but two fictional characters have been mistaken for real people. And twelve real people have been killed as a result.
Charlie Hebdo was not, in recent years, an 'equal-opportunity offender'. Its editors, most now dead, understood that it was touching a nerve that for complicated cultural and historical reasons remained exposed among conservative Muslims but was well-protected in Christendom and its secular descendants. But this, again, is not the only thing Charlie Hebdo was good at doing. The greatest victory today will have been on the side of the National Front. Marine Le Pen can now say: See. And Charlie Hebdo won't be there to ridicule her.