Learning from Paris

The story of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo has gone everywhere in the past week: into meditations on free speech and blasphemy, into declarations of cultural and actual war, and high-wire geopolitics.

It’s a fresh attack, meaning high emotion and demands for ‘moral clarity‘ — and not yet a serious reckoning. If the civilized idea is that no one should be killed for their cartoons, then of course we’re all on “Team Civilization,” as Jon Stewart likes to say. This video from 2006, showing three of the 10 staffers killed sitting around a table, drawing and chuckling, is a poignant reminder of the warmhearted, tweaking work done at Charlie Hebdo.

Protestor photo

A candid man on the street; his sign reads: “I’m marching but I’m conscious of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation.”

But as we react in pain and solidarity to the deaths of these cartoonists and the hostages and policemen killed, too, we’re still puzzling about what we should be learning.

It’s a story of the global spread of radical Islam, an ideology we’ve spent a decade and more trying to ‘contain’ with violence. It’s a story of 21st-century France: humanist, secular, but still tense when it comes to inclusion and identity. It’s a story of clashing fringes in Europe’s rightward drift: nativist National Fronts against deep-dyed Islamic extremists, cooperating in a violent ‘Muslim panic’ that runs counter to the facts. It’s a story, maybe, of comedy gone tragic, raising questions of the use and abuse of the satirical pen. And it’s a story of a world that still seems ready to think in terms of a nightmare clash of civilizations.

What does Charlie Hebdo tell you? Help us sort out the angles and ideas for this week’s show by leaving a comment or recording a message.

Guest List
Arthur Goldhammer
English translator of hundreds of French books (including Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century), blogger on French politics, and author of the novel, Shooting War.
Michael Kupperman
comic artist, writer, and author most recently of Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910 - 2010.
Reading List
Laugh, Cry, Be Offended: Seven Comic Essays on the Charlie Hebdo Attacks
James Van Otto, Ann Telnaes, Khalid Albaih, Annette Carlsen, JJ McCullough, Safdar Ahmed, and Manu
First, hear it from the cartoonists, who put lots of thought and soul into the essays on Matt Bors's graphic magazine, The Nib.
In Paris
Jeremy Harding, the London Review of Books blog
We were drawn to this show by stories of the French reaction. Here's an ambivalent diary entry from the massive demonstrations last Sunday, and earlier, on the night after the massacres, when "on the eve of an identity nightmare, the instincts of French men and women flickered reassuringly like lights about to be restored after a power cut."
Equal in Paris?
Thomas Chatterton Williams, N +1 (online)
A nod to France's "a violent, racist, and unexorcised past" from a black American living there:
Much of the mainstream opinion in the US more or less seems to mirror what Philip Gourevitch wrote on the New Yorker website in the immediate aftermath, when he likened Charlie Hebdo’s offense-giving mission to the heroic, self-sacrificing strategies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Or when the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy that lionized the caricaturists as “war reporters of a sort” on the front lines of a global contest between radical Islam and the West. There can be absolutely no excuse for acts of terrorism, but these are examples, respectively, of rhetorical and political hagiography and blackmail and should be rejected as such. As Susan Sontag put it, “by all means let us mourn together; but let’s not be stupid together.” To that, we might add, let us not be callous, reckless, or oblivious together, either.
Two Frances? A New "Social Fracture"?
Arthur Goldhammer, "French Politics"
A meditation from our guest Arthur Goldhammer on the uncertain moment in the French population, subdivided as it is into city and countryside, downtown and banlieu:
France is uneasy. Both Frances are uneasy, each afraid of the other. Decisions will soon be taken that may determine whether this anxious standoff results in a withdrawal from the brink or spills over into more overt expression of what until now has been sullen mutual suspicion, if not contempt. It is a fraught moment, a dangerous moment, and I can't say which way things will go.
Should satire only target people in power?
Will Self and Martin Rowson, Channel 4 (video)
Novelist Will Self and cartoonist Martin Rowson discuss the goals of satire and the problem of self-censorship.
"Hitler’s Cartoon Problem and the Art of Controversy"
Jeet Heer, Hazlitt.ca
Jeet Heer (who also profiled our guest Art Goldhammer) has written a historical meditation on the loathing of people in power — like Hitler and Napoleon — for the cartoonists who mocked them, and on the incommensurate effects of words and pictures:
Pictures by contrast can move as a quickly as the fastest element in the universe. As the French Interior Minister Francois Regis de la Bourdonnaye noted as long ago as 1829, “engravings and lithographs act immediately upon the imagination of the people, like a book which is read with the speed of light.” Of course, if we wanted to we can spend some time lingering over the artistic craftiness of Low’s Hitler or Levine’s Kissinger but such studies are always just a post-facto cleaning up operation. The initial impact that these drawings has is like a sledgehammer to the brain: a split-second assault that works faster than our skills at reasoning or arguing.

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