I wrote this post originally as the result of a Facebook discussion. I’ve revised it, adding some material on Russia, for this blog post.
Regarding the attack today on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, there seems to be a misconception floating around that the magazine was “anti-Islam”. In fact it was anti-religion, anti-censorship, and anti-authority generally. Many of its past covers have depicted beloved religious, political, and cultural figures saying or doing obscene things, and would be considered far outside the rules of dignified discourse by basically any American media. I was pleased to see Rachel Maddow outline this simple fact on her show this evening.
I was recently at an Airbnb in Belgium, and one of their coffee table books was a lengthy comic book about penis-shaped fish being force fed to starving Africans by fat capitalists. There is no way such a comic could ever see print in America or Japan, but in France and Belgium it is par for the course in adult cartooning (my parents also own some French cartoons like this). Such absurdly obscene cartoons are not meant to inspire anger or to convert people to the cartoonist’s preferred ideology; they are meant to tear down the walls of your ego, and the things that you believe make you a good person because you hold them sacred, and thereby drag you down to the level of laughing alongside the cartoonist. This is one meaning of Meister Eckhart’s enigmatic saying, “He who blasphemes praises God.”
This intentional and meaningful testing of the limits of freedom of speech is one of France’s great accomplishments, in my opinion. Compare to Russia, where the overwhelming cultural consensus is that nobody benefits from obscenity and blasphemy, and blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed or the Orthodox Church is actually illegal; Pussy Riot intentionally broke this law and were prosecuted for it. Compare to America, where blasphemy is considered distasteful, but plenty of people do it anyway simply to be mean to people and prove how cultured and intelligent they are. The tradition of French cartooning does not try to be particularly clever or prove a political point: it merely looks upon all of the world’s attempts to establish order and narrative with the knowing grin of a Dionysus.
How did things turn out this way in France? Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopédie were a start, but in fact there is much more to the story. For example, during the reign of Louis XVI, peddlers of pornography would gather in a square inside the court where due to an archaic law they were free from all censorship, and sell slanderous erotica about Marie Antoinette. Parisians at this time were naive, and believed the slander being published in these books—which is one of the reasons Marie Antoinette became so hated, and why the constitutional monarchy of 1789 dissolved into violence. The maturity needed for all of society to accept obscene fictions as part of the national character is hard-won, and the result of centuries of battle. An attack on this culture is an attack on France itself.
The Danish paper Jyllandsposten commissioned cartoons of Muhammad with the conscious intention of making Muslims angry, and put them all on a single page to prove that they could. This proves only that while Danes may think themselves more courageous than Americans and Germans, in fact they are insensitive and have no sense of humor. None of their “cartoons” were funny anyway. When Charlie Hebdo “republished” the cartoons they were actually importing them into a totally different cultural context. There is no such thing as “reprinting” a Danish idea in Paris: it immediately becomes a French idea. Charlie Hebdo’s idea was not “Muslims are barbarians,” but instead “Muslims are Europeans and French, and we can prove to them how welcome they are by making fun of their sacred cows.”
As one of the guests on the Rachel Maddow show pointed out, France is the most feared nation for Islamic extremists precisely because of their cultural sway; they demand that sacred cows be allowed to burn, and high and mighty egos set aside, for the shared goals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. This is a clear and immediate danger to ignorant, barbaric, ego-driven terrorism, and the centerpiece of this culture is Charlie Hebdo. This is why all of France says “Je suis Charlie” tonight.