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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  • I would bet everyone here agrees that terrorism is bad, free speech is good, and killing is wrong.

    What is to discuss?

    Joe Sacco’s cartoon sums it up in The Guardian January 13, 2015. The last frame of Joe’s cartoon is taking place in Germany’s Pegida organization rally.


    First, I had to sign in so that I can be censored by disq or rosmedia – not sure which….lol.

    • Max Larkin

      Dear Robert: we censor no one but the salespeople! and your comments are always welcome.

      I want to add, though, that there’s a lot to discuss — maybe more than usual. Of course it’s a crime to gun down cartoonists, as we’ve said above. But I’m troubled by some of the rhetoric here.

      First of all, “free speech” is typically thought to be “freed” from government control, by government protection. Oliver Wendell Holmes called it “freedom for the thought we hate.” The French government never made Charlie Hebdo stop drawing Muhammad, probably because they didn’t ultimately hate or fear those cartoons. They might even have thought of them as part of a long national heritage, as frontline forces in the cultural war for a secular France.

      When we talk about free speech and the lack thereof in France, we really ought to speak of the law forbidding headscarves in public schools. Here is something that seems, genuinely, hated in common by the ruling class: young women, dressing conservatively, seen as anti-feminist and submissive, giving devotion to a God associated with Africa, poverty, and violence. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but Alain Badiou did bring out the absurdity in claiming to be a world leader in liberalism — then banning scarves from girls’ heads: “Today’s republic: down with hats!”

      Also, I don’t want people to misunderstand attempts to give context to the massacre as excuses for the murder of their colleagues. The three killers aren’t guilty of silencing dissent, or some civil-rights violation. They’re guilty of murder — an insane and counterproductive tactic, judging by this week’s blockbuster issue of Charlie Hebdo. Now they’re dead at the hands of the French authorities, and if they had been taken alive they would have been gravely punished by the same.

      But I think we can agree that this is obviously connected to a global problem of long duration — the problem of radical “true believers” meeting something they radically hate. As in Norway, as in New York, as in the Corsican mosque where somebody dumped a pig carcass last week. Understanding is a lonely sort of tool in solving this global problem in that it might actually work. And who wants to keep doing this?

      If there were a God of argument, one of His/Her commandments would have been Max Weber’s law: “to understand is not to excuse.” I hope we’ll understand more about this problem after the show tonight.

  • Potter

    There is so much to discuss I don’t know where to begin. This event has so many angles to it and attendant views. I read the articles and the comments.

    Everyday since it happened I would have drawn a different conclusion. Yesterday (or the day before) I would have said that people have to learn (or be educated) to control their emotions if they want to live in a free society. I was looking to draw one simple conclusion and then go on with my life. Today I would start with this article: Why the Charlie Hebdo attack is not about Islam

  • Chucklesk

    Team Civilization, quite well put! I agree, descent into teamism is a danger to us all. If one asked me, “Which side are you on?” I would reply the side that recognizes the needs and dignity of all men and women, the side that sees we are all precious living beings, deserving of life and love and freedom, respectful of and empathetic with all our fellow mankind. What happened is part mass frustration over many things, the missing need for respect and a boiling point which was reached, aimed out of frustration and a warped sense of proportion at cartoonists (my god, cartoonists!), by radical extremists who find cover and converts in the poor parts of town and of those radicalized by war. We often forget one product of war are some radicalized individuals who have experiences they can’t come down from; some who no longer value human life as they once did, and can easily be triggered to act as violent millitants. We can put out the fire and water the garden only after we address the tinder-dry conditions which lead to violent acts. Those frustrations usually don’t compel individuals to turn to violence, but when conditions and inequities grow too great, the sense of one’s diginity and beliefs are threatened, then dry tinder develops, and a few are compelled by extremists preaching hate to do the otherwise unthinkable. Add to that the psychological effects of living in poverty, and yes, I can see where this problem arises. But also one has to wonder, if the desire for power by a few leaders becomes so strong, they use the dark side of the teachings to instill a zealotry in followers attending their services and sessions. What is to be done about the matter? How to switch to the light side? Is there a way to aleviate poverty, end inequity, respect individuals of the Islamic faith in European and American countries, and thus diffuse the extremist support? The killings were awful, I would rather see the root causes addressed to end the support and jutifications for radical militants.

  • Chucklesk

    A very refreshing voice to hear; I am gladdened to hear how this tragedy has, instead of leading to more grave matters and polarization, become a moment of the recognization of cultural diversity and integration in France! Having ancestors from Alsace, it has always seemed to me that the idea of being French was a matter of culture and acceptance of diversity, that and great wine and cheese and really great art.

  • Potter

    The guests were all good. Great to hear Alain Pacowski, the French guitarist, on the art aspect. One of my all time favorite ROS podcasts is Le Jazz Hot.

    The Sacco cartoon, disturbing and provocative, that Robert Peabody III links here (thanks), I welcome.

    There is a lot of history that cannot be undone, and yet we can’t blame everything on Western imperialism. I keep thinking of the Emerson quote that we take out of context and re-purpose, apt: “things are in the saddle and ride mankind”. This is from his “Ode to William H. Channing”.

    The cover of the Charlie Hebdo that I did not understand at first was explained and then it seemed obvious, even moving. But also, although I see it as an offer of peace, this is still apparently upsetting to some. (I learned the word aniconism.) The cover/issue was from rawness of emotions, about forgiveness, and of course about keeping on. They are so broken up these folks at Hebdo. It was not meant viciously.

    So how free are we, we who insist on our freedoms?

    I hope with profound losses, those that have not had to pay with their lives, that they (and we) who mock and criticize, will have more understanding, of themselves, of ourselves. In other words what are we ( and the cartoons we laugh at) actually saying, when we mock and criticize? What are we really saying (or showing) about their sensitivities- their thin skins, their past traumas, their beliefs, and what they pin their existence on? We have our own sensitivities. Are we without our own fragile points? As well, this mocking and criticism while it may be in cases truth-telling, may also give comfort to bigotry. This is not purely and only about a laugh-indulgence and a realization about some unspoken forbidden truth. It can also be costly. The truth is also that people, even cartoonists, tend to broad-brush dangerously. It’s easier than cultivating the ability to look at each other individually, as one other soul pushing through but in different shoes. We see groups, categories of people (ie French, German, American, Muslim, Jew, Christian etc.) “them”.

    I am grateful to Alexander Stille for this on French law:


  • ks

    I’ve got nothing to add but wanted to thank you for a discussion that expanded rather than narrowed my understanding of the situation. Also appreciated the link to Will Self and picture of the one good sign I’ve seen from the Paris march (candid man).

  • Cambridge Forecast


    In order to understand something, one tries to fuse the near view (granularity) and the far view
    (history). Juan Cole and other ROS guests provide a wonderful detailed view of current
    details. I propose to add the following “far view”:

    Jaques Maritain was a leading twentieth century Catholic philosopher-theologian who said some very prescient things about the relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews at a civilizational level, which throw a light on this ROS “Charlie Hebdo/ Paris” show.

    In the English-language translation of Maritain’s “On the Philosophy of History,” from 1957 in the English, we read:

    “ New problems (I merely mention them) of great importance for the philosopher of history relate now to the founding of the State of Israel; its relation to the Diaspora—the relation between the Jews who are citizens of the State of Israel and the Jews who are citizens of other nations; its relation to the Moslem and Christian areas of civilization; and the chances for and aginst its possible development as a State at the same time secular, democratic, with equal rights for all…”
    (Maritain book, page 93, 1957)

    “Another great problem—one with practical and well as theoretical implications—is whether a sacral civilization like the moslem one can become secular.
    Is it possible to have the same kind of development or evolution in the Moslem world as in the Christian world?

    “As a State, the State of Israel, as modern and democratic, also cannot be sacral.”

    (Maritain book, page 113, 1957)

    Netanyahu and the Arab and Muslim radicals are two side of a radical “anti-systemic” force. They are both implementing what I call “mayhemization” strategies using murder and terror.

    The “Charlie Hebdo/Paris” constellation of players epitomizes these “mayhemization” strategies leading it is hoped by them to global turmoil. Netanyahu sees “a world on fire” as
    desirable because the frightened Jews will repair to Israel will Al-Quaeda sees Muslim counter-mobilization. They’re “isomers” of the same radicalism.

    “Charlie Hebdo/Paris” is microcosm of these global-historical tensions and Maritain’s words from the 1950s and before give an incipient “long view.”

    Richard Melson