Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tragedy at Charlie Hebdo

Like every decent human being, I am aghast at the slaughter that occurred today at Charlie Hebdo. I've been discussing the event with various correspondents and thought that the response below to the indented remark might be of some more general interest:

Victor Navasky's "The Art of Controversy" is worth revisiting in explaining the power of images in particular to give offense (having to do, Navasky argues, with the speed at which images can cross cultural borders).

What doesn't cross borders, however, is the context out of which different styles of satire grow. There is an old Parisian tradition of cheeky humor that respects nothing and no one. The French even have a word for it: "gouaille." Think of obscene images of Marie-Antoinette, of priests in flagrante delicto with nuns, of devils farting in the Pope's face, etc. It's an anarchic populist obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred, powerful, etc. It's not exactly apolitical (attacks on Marie-Antoinette surely had a political valence), but it has nothing in common with John Oliver or Jon Stewart, whose use of obscenity is tame by contrast. It is a humor that is at heart blasphemous rather than political, and it is a tradition of blasphemy from which it derives. So the fanatics are not wrong in that respect: Charlie Hebdo is out to undermine the sacred as such. It is their enemy. In a sense, reproducing their imagery tends to sacralize them as an embodiment of an ideal of free speech--exactly the opposite of what these anti-idealists are about. It transforms the shock of their obscenity into the exaltation of their martyrdom. But it has, alas, proved their destiny to become martyrs: Tels qu'en eux-même enfin l'éternité les change.

UPDATE: I've expanded this post into an op-ed for Al Jazeera America.