On the meaning of France

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.

Posted: January 8th, 2015 | Kultur 4 Comments »

4 Comments on “On the meaning of France”

  1. 1 Avery said at 12:30 am on January 9th, 2015:

    P.S. On the subject of Danes having no sense of humor, Wikipedia says that three Danish newspapers (alone in Europe) actually reprinted past Mohammed cartoons printed in Charlie. As an Al Jazeera writer has pointed out, this is utterly missing the point.


  2. 2 !LightP said at 10:12 pm on January 13th, 2015:

    I think your attack on the Danish newspapers is misguided.

    Firstly, on the cartoons from some years back in Jyllands-Posten:

    Firstly, the cartoons were not conceived with the primary objective of offending muslims, but rather as a challenge to those who say “free speech, unless it’s …”. The newspaper had (rightly) identified that there was a growing list of unwritten exceptions to this freedom – in particular, any depiction of the prophet Mohammed.

    So the cartoons were published, and there was a huge outcry. Many people voiced the opinion that such publications should be forbidden, i.e. “freedom of speech, unless it’s …”. These ideas are completely contrary to the society’s values, and the newspaper should be commended for standing up to the threat of “censorship by intimidation/fear”. Arguing about whether the cartoons were tasteless or not is completely missing the point.

    Anyway, you write ‘[n]one of their “cartoons” were funny anyway’. Are you kidding? A bunch of them are substantially funnier than the Charlie Hebdo stuff. Even accounting for different sense of humour, they are quite clever. (They are drawn by newspaper cartoonists after all, not the editor on the back of a napkin.) So why don’t you actually have a look at what you are writing about before being so dismissive as to write that JP has ‘no sense of humor’? Or is the prerequisite for such publications that they must appear only in satirical journals just so every idiot knows it’s supposed to be a joke? In fact, the Danish were only half joking. This is serious stuff.

    There is a second level to this too, perhaps quite specific to Danish culture. (I know, not as romantic, nor as envied French culture, but don’t stop reading!) Just as the French have expectations of their fellow countrymen (spelled out quite movingly by the recent demonstrations), so too do the Danes. In fact, some guy actually took the time to distill the concept and write it down – it is known as janteloven. While the merits of this way of thinking are a matter of debate, there is no denying that on a very low level Danish people still think this way.

    OK, so what? So in this way of thinking, nobody is greater than the society. Nobody is above the rest. So when foreigners move here, they are welcomed, sure. But they are welcomed as Danes, NOT as foreigners. For people of a different way of thinking to move to Denmark and expect concessions to be made especially for themselves – this flies in the face of the collective ideology that is janteloven. Now one might be quick to point out that most societies are like this, however empirically this is not the case. Take the immediate example of these Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the ever-present tiptoeing around the subject in most Western media. This brings me to my next point.

    On the Charlie Hebdo cartoons:

    You say quite scornfully that some Danish newspapers have reprinted past cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, reiterating that this somehow makes the Danes offensive and humourless. While this is a weird conclusion to draw for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I wish first to reemphasise the Danish mentality. Many countries are careful not to offend minorities or immigrants, but Denmark does not care. Denmark is the land of the Danes, and the Danes are not just the blue-eyed and fair-skinned people. No, the Danes are the ones that can take a joke, irrespective of their colour or background or religion. This is not a prejudiced attitude by any means – much the opposite. This is the primary reason that Denmark has among the most well-integrated immigrants, and why it is renowned for its happy, harmonious society. Sweden is taking seemingly the opposite approach, and the results do not look so promising (cf. Rosengård, etc.).

    Now when it comes to reprinting the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, I don’t understand why this is somehow contentious at all. The alternative – that is, shying away from any such publication of these images – is bad journalism at best, and self-censorship at worst. When I read about three guys killing a bunch of people in France because of some cartoons, I want to know damn well what the cartoons actually were so that I may draw my own conclusion. For a newspaper to withhold this critical piece of the story in its coverage is frankly ridiculous. Why shouldn’t they publish them? Because they might offend someone? Yeah, I mean we did just have every relevant head of state and every talking head on TV tell us that we should defend our liberties and free speech. Wait…

    Moreover, the Al Jazeera commentary is totally stupid. The writer complains that the publications who have republished the works of Charlie Hebdo are somehow honouring Charlie Hebdo for the wrong reasons. First of all, I believe that many republications have simply been in the name of factual reporting (also known as: actual journalism), not some kind of homage. Secondly, if they are meant to be honouring Charlie Hebdo, then how are they missing the point? Surely it is the politicians missing the point, when they chant “je suis Charlie” and then fly back home where they continue to subvert the liberty of their fellow countrymen? Or the journalists who weep with crocodile tears in the lines of their newspaper, whose editorial policy is one of self-censorship? Or again, maybe it’s one of those unwritten rules that say we can only publish such things in satirical or off-the-wall organs.

    The newspapers of Denmark have been both consistent and defiant in their journalism and activism on this matter. The same can be said of very few other media outlets, many of whom have reacted in profoundly hypocritical ways.To criticise the Danes, or their newspapers – of all people, or institutions – is truly baffling.

  3. 3 Rob said at 4:09 am on January 18th, 2015:

    Yeah, except Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist for work they considered anti-semetic, controls religious dress and has a law against Holocaust denial. Sure you can be edgy, as long as you choose they correct edge. They also decline to teach their students about their own slaughter of about 400,000 to 1,500,000 in Algeria as they tried to hang on to empire in the 50’s.

  4. 4 Avery said at 7:34 am on January 18th, 2015:

    I apologize to two readers who left lengthy comments here. Disqus has helpfully broken its own plugin, and although I approved your comments, they are no longer showing up. I have to disable comments now since I don’t have the time to fix this technical issue.