Saturday, January 10, 2015


On our last day in Paris in December we went to the Parc Floral's mini-golf, whose website promised a fun time cruising a little ball through 18 of the city's most famous monuments. Despite the website's invitation and all other research, the mini-golf was of course closed (until April) and so we stood outside the gate and the kids named off all of the monuments that they knew and we took pictures of the tiny renditions of the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, etc.: all of the icons that had anchored the glorious fabric of the city for us for five months. That was the first thing one of my daughters put together about yesterday's attacks in Paris: "Wait, isn't Porte de Vincennes near the mini-golf?" It is: the Parc Floral is behind the Ch√Ęteau which is itself a couple of metro stops down from the Porte. I imagine that millions are performing quick, relational geographies as they try to follow and begin to understand what is happening in Paris. Getting a bearing since the attacks started on Wednesday has not been easy. Being far away makes the city both more vulnerable and more formidable - all of it a grand, permeable theater in which the horrors of the shootings unfolded. Lives and principles are being mourned simultaneously: Charlie Hebdo holds the names of the political cartoonists killed on Wednesday and becomes the rallying cry of a free press and what it takes for a society to have and keep one; #JeSuisAhmed memorializes the police officer shot defending, as so many have pointed out, the press's right to carry out the critique and mockery of everything, including his own religion of Islam; signs of "Je suis juif" are up at the kosher grocery, site of yesterday's attacks, this morning.

Disparity becomes the measure. The poverty and exclusion of the attackers' childhoods in France; the promise of prosperity within a society that treasures and legislates for human dignity. The material presence of cartoons as pen on paper and fleeting though infinitely reproducible images; the brutality of weaponry and methodical killing. There are more; so many as to rend that fabric we were just beginning to think we understood when we lived there. The fabric of secular humanism, that prizes rational thought and seeks to mock mystical, magical thought into oblivion. The American press is doing a lot more hand-wringing about the political cartoons than the French press is. Within our endlessly elastic language, I have read prescient phrasings of the limits of the freedom of the press: just because we have the right [to make vicious, racist political cartoons] does that mean that it's right to do so? just because we can [draw incendiary, provocative political cartoons], must we? The American press has said no (well, no, think about whom you're offending and why and is it worth it?), and very often blurred out images of the covers of Charlie Hebdo; the French press has answered yes (yes, yes, absolutely yes, freedom is a principle to defend not a condition to be occasionally enjoyed).

I think very much about the slow but resolute fall from grace that the virtue of Prudence had between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Enlightenment: its pragmatism and appreciation of condition made it one of the four cardinal virtues of the Middle Ages with applications to political theory, and then eventually made it reprehensible to an age of absolute principles. The old middle school social studies adage of "your freedom ends where others' begins" gets hazy. It's too early yet to find French press critiques of the freedom of the press, but there are many American press pieces doing just that ("what's the line between satire and racism?" is the big, pertinent question being asked - for example in this Slate piece, and, with queries about uses of the word "freedom," in this New Yorker piece. (And I keep asking myself about the line between the freedom of the press, and the privilege of the press - who has the freedom/privilege to satirize others - a question historically elaborated in this piece). And no, no one should be gunned down, even for the most virulent racism. This German piece claims: the second you add the conditional "but" to a condemnation of the killings, you condone them. Freedom of the press: conditions may or may not apply. And here's the thing: of the many things I've read and scoured the past three days looking for news, mourning what happened to all those lives and loved ones, realizing that Paris will be changed, thinking about things to share out here, I'm not going to link to a particular French satirical show's take on the attacks because part of it is really offensive. (And, like the relational geography being performed by millions, I think of all the decisions people and institutions are making on varying scales to commemorate the dead and protest the violence). At the same time, this particular French satirical show is one of the few shows that's mentioned the Boko Haram massacre (and done so with a compassionate commemoration of its victims), a massacre which has barely made the mainstream news because of events in Paris.  More damn disparity.

I will link to an American medievalist whose excellent piece has had me thinking a great deal, in particular a quote and a statement about the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Oblivion and erasure are dangerous fantasies of any order that seeks to create a new world, be it jihad or secular humanism. I don't know how jihad (or any earnest struggle) co-exists with satire, nor how secular humanism (and its principled demands) co-exists with mysticism (you can hear the responses: "they can't!" "they must!"). All those little monuments at the mini-golf keep popping into my head: tiny, whitewashed markers of an imagined city in a dormant park. At the end of these very long days the images (and there are so many images - proliferating, emerging, seizing, saying a great many things) - the images of human beings afraid, dead, alone continue to raise a call for comfort and protection. May these be found.

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