Please witness something you probably haven’t seen if you’ve been following English-language news coverage of last week’s Charlie Hebdo massacre: actual Charlie Hebdo art. TV Journalists have characterized their illustrations as “editorial cartoons” and “satire journalism,” but when R. Crumb used similar art in his groundbreaking Fritz the Cat comics, it was labeled pornographic in several markets. Even Charlie’s own masthead calls their product “journal irresponsable,” Irresponsible Journalism. Let’s ask ourselves, then: irresponsible to whom?
In the days immediately following last week’s shootings, the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan became global. People who didn’t speak French posted it as their Facebook pictures. American journalists rushed to Charlie’s defense, though few newspapers and no national TV networks opted to reproduce their art. Although moving the American President is slightly less onerous than moving the Eiffel Tower, conservative leaders lambasted President Obama for not locking arms with David Cameron and Angela Merkel in Paris.
One wonders if those same conservatives would continue their rhetoric if they’d witnessed the cartoon of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit butt-fucking. Yes, I’d consider that an accurate description. Really, there’s no other word for what Charlie depicts on their front cover. Likewise, they’ve published images belittling the Holocaust, ethnic Algerians, and anything else they dislike. This ain’t The Onion, folks; Charlie made its reputation pissing off people with little recourse when openly provoked.
Let’s be clear: Charlie didn’t take down the powerful, hector the corrupt in high places, or speak for the disfranchised among the French people. Despite pluralistic left-wing claims, it essentially endorsed the powers that be. The French government systematically marginalizes ethnic Algerians, and Muslims generally, much like American culture marginalizes African Americans. Free speech exists to protect minority opinions and counter-culturalists; Charlie, by contrast, essentially supported the government’s stated position regarding a historically poor minority.
Americans may not realize that, among modern nations, only the United States has a written Constitutional guarantee of unobstructed free speech. Even democracies like France and its EU allies circumscribe certain speech acts the majority finds objectionable. Anti-Semitic literature, Nazi imagery, and Holocaust denial are strictly prohibited in France, Germany, and Canada; they’re tightly controlled in Britain, using the same laws that restrain pornography and slander. French free speech is a philosophy, not a law.
Notably, Muslims enjoy (if that’s the word) no such protections. Already mostly poor, downtrodden for their accent and skin color, unable even to live outside ethnically stratified ghettos, they’re powerless against white French dominance. Much like African Americans, who must walk on eggshells, conscious that their every move gets judged as representing their entire race, French Muslims are aliens in their society. For most, an Eric Garner-style death is the best they can hope for.
Charlie chose not to use its national—indeed, international—platform to defend an oppressed people or challenge the majority. Given the chance to pierce the veil French people wear obstructing their view of the Muslim minority, mostly immigrants from France’s former colonial empire, it instead chose to deepen the antagonism France’s white majority feels toward its weak and subjugated. Charlie purposefully kicked the weak, dared them to kick back, and wept publicly when they did.
If this isn’t an abuse of free speech, nothing is. Indeed, it’s the very behavior demonstrated by men who complain about feminist oppression, claiming they don’t really have “male privilege,” just because life isn’t frictionless. Charlie’s mostly white staff, which comes from mostly Catholic heritage but, like most French artists and academics, has expressed agnostic tendencies, is firmly entrenched in the majority. If the powerful provoke the powerless, they don’t get to claim oppression retroactively.
The Kouachi brothers, defenseless against a hostile but protected media, could suffer silently. But would you? Imagine if an American media conglomerate ran a blackface minstrel show. Should African Americans take that lightly? Should they limit themselves to sign-waving protests? While I never advocate violence, it’s difficult to believe the powerful could insult the powerless, over the course of years, and act aggrieved because somebody, egged on by international money, encouraged them to fight back.
I reject violence as political manipulation. But in my own life, I’ve discovered I, too, have the capacity to respond violently when provocations mount up, and unelected overlords treat submissiveness as a cardinal virtue. I’ve never killed anybody, but I understand why people feel that powerless. America has its own angry, scared, excluded populations. If nakedly baiting the powerless makes Charlie an international hero, well, don’t act surprised when violence visits our shores, too.