Wednesday, January 14, 2015


The new Charlie Hebdo cover isn't doing anyone any favors. It's right back to the racist caricature of Mohammad. Didn't skip a beat. The Guardian has an excellent series of op-ed pieces debating the cover - some for, some against. Joseph Harker's piece sizes up perfectly how the racist caricature is not a grand moment of freedom of expression, but just more bullying of an already heavily-discriminated against minority in France. "Yes, of course Charlie Hebdo has the right to do this; but why would they want to, given the symbolism of Sunday's gatherings across France? Surely now is the time to move forward, to isolate the extremist murderers and bring the nation together; not to trumpet your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities, losing friends in the process." Everyone's seeing this, now that they've taken a closer look at Charlie Hebdo: sure, they "go after everyone," but they really go after Muslims. (And, depending on how you choose to read the "All is forgiven" line, the degree of "going after" varies.) You don't have to be an extremist to be offended by the images. They're wearisome.

There's a phrase in English that takes apart the absolute quality of satire and considers who is speaking about whom. "Punching up" is when someone with less power satirizes someone with more; "punching down" is when someone with more power satirizes someone with less. When you look at all of the photographs of the white men at the cover-release press conference yesterday, you can start to consider their power - which they have heavily asserted a week after the horrible attacks. When you read their comment in Le Monde that (roughly translated) "We trust people's intelligence, the intelligence of humor, a second degree [not sure how to translate this, but definitely indicating a higher, more subtle degree] intelligence. The attackers lacked a sense of humor and are at the first degree. We have to find/carve out a place for the second degree in the world in which we live." - you see who has the power to be elite about intelligence and humor. You see they're punching down. Is this consideration of the power dynamic between satirist and satirized possible within the discourse of the absolute right of satire? (Is satire a right? Is it seamlessly aligned (the veritable litmus test) of the freedom of the press?).

Max Fischer in Vox performs a meticulous breakdown of a particularly gross Charlie Hebdo cover. He represents the cover, unpacks its critique (which is ultimately a leftist critique of the rightist government) and does a savvy comparison with the infamous July 2008 New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas as radicals. He gets at the "second degree," the critique behind the joke. But he also argues that the subtlety of the second degree doesn't erase or justify the racism of the joke. "Charlie Hebdo's biggest problem isn't racism," reads a sub-heading, "it's punching down."

As everyone writes, and must keep writing, no one and nothing justifies the attacks of last week. That isn't what the critiques of Charlie Hebdo in the English and American press are about. The critiques, to my mind, are about how we live with the attacks now; how we live with the loss of life and security and understanding. Going right back to business as usual seems like a willful ignorance that Paris and France might actually be changed by the horrors of last week. Something to commemorate the dead might have been more, well, peaceful. But. That's not what Charlie Hebdo is about. A piece that came out last week (so, to be clear, not in response to this week's cover) by former Onion editor Joe Randazzo stays in my mind because of his mention of the Middle Ages. "Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter." It's a well-worn rhetorical use of the Middle Ages (of a dark time left behind by modern society, so if "even they" did something, we ought to be ashamed not to - and yes, medievalists critique this false divide). But the court jester worked for the king; he was in his employ. And was the jester's standard the truth? He might mock the king (within limits), but he mostly mocked his enemies. So. Enemy lines have been redrawn. Charlie Hebdo normally published 60,000 copies a week. This week, they're printing 3 million. Will they all sell?

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