In defence of Charlie Hebdo

There was much wailing on Twitter yesterday after French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo came out with this cover:

“God exists! He drowned all the Texas neo-Nazis!”

The complaints were mostly in the manner of:

1. After this, don’t expect sympathy when your offices are shot up again.

2. How many Texans died saving you from real Nazis?

3. It’s easy for you to mock us when we don’t hit back.

That last one makes the mistake of thinking Charlie Hebdo stopped lampooning Islam after the massacre in their offices in January 2015: they didn’t.

To be fair, I didn’t read anyone saying Charlie Hebdo should be silenced over this – most of the complaints were from the political right, not the infantile left. But they kind of miss the point.

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, and their MO is to publish the most offensive take on whatever the leading story is that week. They do this to shock people into understanding what thoughts might be out there, and remind everyone that people are free to hold them. Anyone who looks at the front cover above and thinks “Oh my God, they think Texans are Nazis and they’re laughing at the dead!” doesn’t understand Charlie Hebdo or satire. Whereas I have no doubt most of those at Charlie Hebdo are politically of the hard-left which dominate institutions in central Paris, you’d be mistaken if you believe their magazine exists to promote their political views. They’re a scattergun, take-no-prisoners outfit proving points which most people would rather shy away from acknowledging.

In the aftermath of the attacks, I never thought Charlie Hebdo was looking for sympathy. Rather, I think they wanted the assurance that what they were doing was perfectly okay and the attack they suffered was in no way justified. Instead they got weasel words, obfuscation, crocodile tears, and people saying perhaps they deserved it. One common opinion was that publications which deliberately go out of their way to offend people ought not to complain when there is a reaction. This misses the point: so long as Charlie Hebdo can continue to do what it does, everyone else is free to speak, write, and draw as they please. Once we enter into the territory of differentiating between deliberate and inadvertent offence, it becomes a negotiation with those who don’t recognise our right to do either and would rather silence us completely.

Charlie Hebdo is on the front-line of free speech, and they set out to prove it week after week. They don’t care about sympathy from Texans, they only want to make the point that if they can publish something as heinous as this then so can you, and if they are thinking such thoughts then so are plenty of others. Unfortunately, Charlie Hebdo is ploughing a lonely furrow. As I said in the aftermath of the attacks on their offices:

Nothing highlights the cultural gap between France and Britain more than the uncomfortable suspicion that Charlie Hebdo would not have lasted more than a year in the UK before being hounded out of business by the state and its backers in one form or another, as this article makes clear.

For all their faults, the French seem to take a more robust view of free speech than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. There is no way Charlie Hebdo could be sold in Australia or Canada, and if the past few years is anything to go by, they’d likely be shut down in the USA too. People like to imagine that the French are thin-skinned, but you don’t see the sort of hand-wringing over offensive speech and ideas here that you do in America and Britain. They prefer to ignore it and focus on more pressing concerns – like which wine to have with tonight’s dinner.

Rather than getting upset about Charlie Hebdo’s puerile and offensive front covers, we should be glad that at least someone is putting them out there. If they weren’t, how could we be sure that speech was still free? And how would we know that what we said was not going to land us in trouble? It’s startling that the French understand this and can answer these questions, but those in the US cannot.

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31 thoughts on “In defence of Charlie Hebdo

  1. “Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine …”: OK, I know what ‘satire’ means.

    “… and their MO is to publish the most offensive take on whatever the leading story is that week”: well good for them, but that’s not actually satire.

    “It’s startling that the French understand this and can answer these questions, but those in the US cannot”: but in the US ‘free speech’ is nothing of the sort. It refers only to the requirement that the government can’t restrict your speech, where ‘your’ refers to someone of importance. Obviously it doesn’t refer to, for example, students at a state university. And it’s never referred to defending speech from bullying by employers, unions, churches, simple social pressures, and now Left fascists.

  2. I agree Tim. We have proscribed speech in this country rather than free speech. There are any number of things you cannot say here which you really ought to be free to say.

  3. “It’s startling that the French understand this and can answer these questions, but those in the US cannot.”

    This is probably due to the free-thinking good folk of the US not being as demoralised as the cowardly and severely defeated French are. Let’s face it, everybody knows that the Holocaust never happened, it’s a dam shame for the French that the Wehrmacht were defeated by the Russians because if they hadn’t been, France and the other European nations would be in far better shape these days and we wouldn’t be seeing any of this rubbish that they go for now.

  4. “For all their faults, the French seem to take a more robust view of free speech than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. ”

    Agreed, and this is a shameful situation that we – the Anglo-Saxons – have helped to create. Charlie Hebdo should not be the “front line” in issues of free speech. We should all be the “front line”, and then there would be no obvious targets like Charlie Hebdo for the fanatics to target. In the 1980s, those rioting and effigy-burning Islamic fanatics calling for Salman Rushdie’s death should have been met with a baton charge and criminal prosecutions. But we left it to others, didn’t we?

  5. I agree that it is good to see that free speech is alive and well in France. There are, however, plenty of topics deserving of satire; and this is not one of them. You can be satirical without being nihilistic. Indeed, without a moral compass satire is no more than absurdity.

    Of course, it could be that this is a kind of clever indirect satire, aimed at those people who may agree with the sentiment expressed by the magazine cover.

  6. There are, however, plenty of topics deserving of satire; and this is not one of them.

    Indeed, nor is the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH).

  7. “Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, and their MO is to publish the most offensive take on whatever the leading story is that week. They do this to shock people into understanding what thoughts might be out there, and remind everyone that people are free to hold them.”

    I think the problem is that that’s not the most offensive take, at the moment it’s the least offensive one (at least for a magazine in the business of being offensive). The current moral panic in society is to attack the alt-right Nazis, you signal your virtue by loudly joining in with the mob. A truly subversive take (I think that’s the word you meant, rather than satirical) would have been to take the other side – drowning Antifa and BLM protestors, for example. Or perhaps a statue of General Lee, carrying a ‘Free Speech’ flag, being inundated by a rising flood of black-shirted protestors. Or showing KKK hood-wearing Nazis rescuing people from the floods, saying: “We’re human too.” That would shock!

    Given the tide of vituperation and anti-alt-right hatred and violence currently rolling across America, I don’t think the offence involved in seeing a cartoon from a tiny foreign magazine is particularly significant. My objections would be on artistic grounds: it’s trite, obvious, not clever, not very funny virtue signalling for the conventional mainstream. No problem publishing it inside as one of the spectrum of viewpoints, but what does it say about the content if this was really the best, cleverest, and funniest cartoon in the magazine, to put on the cover and draw people in?

    Although perhaps that was the idea. Who do you want to preach to – the choir, or the sinners? Who do you want to buy the magazine – people whose minds are already open on free speech, or the people whose minds are likely still closed? Or maybe they just wanted to make the point that they weren’t “taking sides”, and just because someone is (currently) on the side of free speech doesn’t mean you can’t criticise their other opinions where you dislike or disagree with them. You would have to ask the artist what they meant by it, and nobody seems to be very interested in doing so.

  8. Amusingly, the Australian press feigned outrage at this cartoon too…. but published it, unlike the one that got the offices shot up.

    Do you get it yet?

  9. Each western nation is falling to fascism and islam in their own unique way. One nation is better on this, worse on that. But they are all still dying.

  10. @LPT “aimed at those people who may agree with the sentiment expressed by the magazine cover”

    Yes, I think you have a point here, it’s free speech if it involves ideas I agree with or it attacks people I dislike but it’s hate speech when I’m the one who is offended.

    God forbid if they were to publish some anti-Semitic nonsense.

  11. What NiV said. The cover is just parroting a ruling class shibboleth, so it’s boring and propagandistic. Whatever. I’m not going to shoot up their office over it, but it’s still lame.

  12. Yep, another here in agreement with NiV.

    They should have every right to print this cover, but it is pathetic.

    Unless, of course, I’ve missed the point and this is actually a satire of the kind of idiot that thinks Texas is full of Nazis.

  13. My reaction as an American was that it made no sense. The idea that there are a lot of Nazis in Texas (or anywhere else in America) is bizarre.

    I have noticed when reading the Italian press that when reporting on America, they say EXACTLY the same things that the mainstream press in America is saying. I imagine that European journalists just read what American journalists are saying and accept it face value. The total failure of the American media to understand or predict the Trump phenomenon illustrates the problem with this.

    Clearly the people at Charlie Hebdo bought into the media hysteria about Nazis and white supremacists and accordingly published a cover that is barely even comprehensible, much less funny, to anyone who has spent any time in Texas.

  14. You would have to ask the artist what they meant by it

    It seems to me that if you have to ask what the artist meant, it wasn’t very good art.

  15. Clearly the people at Charlie Hebdo bought into the media hysteria about Nazis and white supremacists and accordingly published a cover that is barely even comprehensible, much less funny, to anyone who has spent any time in Texas.

    There’s a reason why I wrote:

    Anyone who looks at the front cover above and thinks “Oh my God, they think Texans are Nazis and they’re laughing at the dead!” doesn’t understand Charlie Hebdo or satire.

    My reaction as an American was that it made no sense. The idea that there are a lot of Nazis in Texas (or anywhere else in America) is bizarre.

    That’s because you’ve seen the one front cover of Charlie Hebdo which referred to something close to you. It would be like an African watching an episode of South Park with Starvin’ Marvin and saying “this makes no sense”. It only makes sense if you’re familiar with the whole South Park MO. I sat with a Jamaican through 15 mins of Family Guy once and she thought it was offensive filth, which it is if viewed in isolation. And I wonder what Koreans think of Team America: World Police?

    Charlie Hebdo doesn’t market itself to Americans, so they’re not familiar with it. Hence the reaction.

  16. My objections would be on artistic grounds: it’s trite, obvious, not clever, not very funny virtue signalling for the conventional mainstream.

    Their criticism of Islam is hardly virtue signalling to the conventional mainstream. See here on the right:

  17. “Each western nation is falling to fascism and islam in their own unique way.”

    Whilst the French may have the highest proportion of ISIS sympathizers in Europe amongst its citizens, my observation on France is that it is it’s Africanisation that is by far and large its greatest demographic change in recent years. This view crystallized when my youngest son was drawn towards the abundance of Africans and their cultural trappings on a recent visit to Paris, I was disappointed that he wasn’t drawn to French things but that is children for you.

    And congratulations to the French national soccer team for giving the Dutch an absolute whooping in their world cup qualifier last night.

    http://www.firstpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/000_S04VX_opt-1.jpg

  18. You are missing the point Tim – and I’m as big a defender of the First Amendment than one will find. Charlie Hebdo can be as stupid as they want – that does NOT mean that they are creating SATIRE. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was satire; The Onion is satire, as is Duffel Blog. EVERYBODY has the right to free speech (except of course legally not in the EU) but one cannot then claim satire. The French are stupid – that you chose to live amongst them rather than the British says something really bad about the British.

  19. EVERYBODY has the right to free speech (except of course legally not in the EU) but one cannot then claim satire.

    Okay, so supposing CH shuts down tomorrow. Who becomes the benchmark of free speech, that we can point to as reassurance that we can say what we please?

    Indeed, who can we point to in the UK or US for this purpose? Seriously, which publication, person, or outlet can we point to and say: “So long as they can keep putting out their stuff, we don’t have anything to worry about”? I can’t think of any.

  20. Gongtao
    “My reaction as an American was that it made no sense. The idea that there are a lot of Nazis in Texas (or anywhere else in America) is bizarre.”

    Well, my reaction is that it is a satire on those coastal, Blue, Americans who really do think Texas is just a hellhole of racists and gun owners……

  21. Just as I would defend Larry Flynt’s right to publish what he wants, I will defend Hebdo’s right.

    Just as I would spit on Larry Flynt should I ever meet him, I will spit on the Hebdo artists.

  22. Just as I would spit on Larry Flynt should I ever meet him, I will spit on the Hebdo artists.

    Which is exactly what the lefty lunatics in the US do: claim to respect the right of people to speak, but assault them for doing so.

  23. @Jean,

    Satire is mostly pretty infantile on the continent. In Germany we have Jens Böhmermann (poetry about the Turkish president’s alleged sexual preferences) and Titanic (basically Charlie Hebdo with added tiptoeing around leftist taboos). The bottom rung of Private Eye humour is as good as it gets.

    The entire satirical tradition, to the extent it existed, was totally crushed by Nazism (in France as well as Germany). Even the mildest mick taking of those in power was a life (or death) sentence. That has never to date happened in the Anglosphere.

  24. If you look back on time and what was going in Europe and what the real threat was (Bolshevism), the French should count their lucky stars that National Socialism was formed and gathered strength and championed the cause of resisting the red terror in their plans to conquer the continent and the world. If it were not for the German people and their leadership being geographically located between the Soviets and their French objectives, then the French would have been easily crushed by the communist menace.

    Satirical magazines would then have been the least of their worries. Just as Franco saved the Spanish and Mussolini saved the Italians, Hitler saved the French from the worst form of totalitarianism brutality and murder that this world has ever seen. Now that the German people and their nationalistic spirit remain broken, who is going to save them the next time around is the real question.

    And as the Bolsheviks continue their long march, which is by no means concluded, the Charlie Hedbo cartoonists had better hope that they never prevail. If they did then they would be the first to be rounded up, their hands tied behind their back and shot in the back of head, let’s see them make some fun of that shall we, probably not judging by their chosen targets to date.

  25. Tim Newman on September 3, 2017 at 4:19 pm said:

    “Which is exactly what the lefty lunatics in the US do: claim to respect the right of people to speak, but assault them for doing so.”

    For eons, the phrase “I will spit on them” has meant “I feel utter contempt for them, and will show them that at every opportunity.”

    It is only recently, through the efforts of the left, and apparently others, that it gets interpreted as “I will assault them.”

    Acknowledging the right of free speech to all, even the contemptible, (which you may I have noticed that I did) does not extend to “and I will respect their position because they are just as deserving of their opinion as the rest of us.”

    I know many people in Texas. Lots of them, as we speak, are organizing livestock rescues and hay caravans in order to help keep lots of small operations functioning and lots of incomes alive. They are finding places for people to live. They are sharing food, money, homes, tools, and time.

    And Hebdo draws a cover pic that shows these good people as Nazis.

    Scroom. I will show my contempt for these scum as I see fit. There’s nothing satirical in what they did – they simply lied for the fun of it.

    If nothing else, it’s a quick way to ferret out the PC people, I guess.

  26. For eons, the phrase “I will spit on them” has meant “I feel utter contempt for them, and will show them that at every opportunity.”

    Apologies, I took it literally: my bad.

    Scroom. I will show my contempt for these scum as I see fit. There’s nothing satirical in what they did – they simply lied for the fun of it.

    Okay, fine. But if CH wasn’t in print, to whom would we point as evidence we can say what we like? Or would we have to take the government’s word for it?

  27. The entire satirical tradition, to the extent it existed, was totally crushed by Nazism (in France as well as Germany). Even the mildest mick taking of those in power was a life (or death) sentence. That has never to date happened in the Anglosphere.

    That’s an interesting point, thanks.

  28. BiG – lived there, on and off, for a total of ten years. It’s not just satire that’s missing in the humor department!

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