Last week, I watched the news as the terror attacks in France unfolded, then reached their violent ends. I don’t think anyone deserves to die for drawing a cartoon and contrary to the expectations of some who might be reading this, I’m not going to qualify that statement in any way. I don’t think I can add to this, other than to voice my sorrow for the families of those who were killed last week, while I think it will be a very long time before I forget the melancholy scenes of the memorial for the murdered police officers and the funeral in Israel of the Jews who were killed.
Prior to this, I don’t remember ever hearing about the Charlie Hebdo magazine, despite the fact that I have long had more than a passing interest in France and a cousin who works as a journalist in Paris. After the horrific news that workers at the Charlie Hebdo offices and two policemen had been murdered, I quickly realised that the central issue in these events concerned freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I’m a writer and published author of a mildly controversial book, while I’ve previously worked as a writer of verse, as a singer, as an actor and as a performer, among others, so it was inevitable that I should look closely at the idea of freedom of speech, something I’d really never thought of in great detail before.
Over the past few days, I must have read acres of online newsprint in what turned out to be a futile attempt to come to an informed and reasoned conclusion. In brief, it seems to me that every country on Earth has a separate notion of what constitutes freedom of speech or freedom of expression, while opinion within all those countries is also divided along various lines.
At one extreme, I had always supposed it was a given that North Korea was the country least amenable to freedom of expression, but I found myself having profound second thoughts when I learned of the Saudi cleric who has recently issued a fatwa on children building snowmen. At the other end of the scale, I assumed that the citizens of France enjoyed the most far-reaching freedoms when it came to expression, then I remembered the case of the Texas judge who argued in April 2013 that the filming of the torture of small animals and the subsequent sale of these ‘crush videos’ was protected by the First Amendment.
At around this point, I found myself losing the will to live and I gave up any idea of trying to formulate some incontrovertible notion of freedom of expression, so someone far more patient and far more clever than myself will have to do so and I await the result with keen interest.
Having abandoned any quasi-legal or philosophical pursuits, it made sense for me to familiarise myself with Charlie Hebdo, as I’d never encountered it before. I’d heard it described as a satirical magazine, so I was looking forward to becoming acquainted with some Gallic wit, as I’d studied the Satires of Juvenal when I was at school in the 1970s and I’d greatly enjoyed them, as I had the satires written by Horace and Persius, and also the works of Catullus.
Over the years, I’d often read Private Eye and the separate works of Auberon Waugh, while I’d watched programmes such as Monty Python, Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You, deriving huge pleasure from them all. I’d been imbued with the anti-establishment works and attitude of the Rolling Stones as I was growing up and I’d been impressed by the snarling venom of the Sex Pistols, so I was curious about the potential treasure-troves of irreverent sparkling wit and biting satire I might encounter in the notorious and for me, newly-discovered Charlie Hebdo.
Perhaps I was subconsciously hoping to discover something on a par with the humour of Monty Python, Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, Open All Hours, Only Fools and Horses, the Young Ones, Bottom, Rik Mayall’s New Statesman, Blackadder, One Foot in the Grave, Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, Private Eye, the Daily Mash, Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand or Viz, but if so, I was extremely disappointed.
I didn’t spend long studying them, although I won’t grace the material I’ve seen with a link, but the cartoons that I saw of people of all races and religions immediately reminded me of vile caricatures I’d seen of black people as drawn by the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the hateful depictions of Jews during the years of the Nazi regime. I’ve taken the trouble to read about ‘double-layered satire’ and so forth, as well as trying to grasp the French fascination with these things, but I didn’t think anything I saw was funny or clever by any stretch of the imagination, and I flatter myself that I have a highly developed sense of humour.
Try as I might, this particular instance of Gallic wit is lost on me, but Josh Healey at the Common Dreams site has gone into most of the issues and has articulated them all far more eloquently than I could, while it’s also perhaps worth pointing out the recently-published views of Henri Roussel, a founding member of Charlie Hebdo. However, before I come to my final point, there’s one more matter concerning humour that I feel I must address.
Over the years, I’ve lost count of the tasteless jokes I’ve heard pertaining to human tragedies and for better or for worse, I’ve laughed at this black humour as heartily as anyone else. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of heavy rock and while I’d hazard a guess that my brothers and sisters who share my love of this music have a more robust sense of humour than most others, there are absolute limits.
In late 2013, the lead singer of the rock band Lostprophets, Ian Watkins, was sentenced for offences against children that were so grotesquely depraved that the coverage I saw in the online music press immediately went into what you might call self-censorship mode, reporting on what had happened in sombre, subdued tones, then offering a link to the court proceedings with the crystal clear warning that anyone wanting to read the full details of the case did so at the risk to their own sanity.
Furthermore, I do not know of anyone who has ever made a joke about this matter, nor do I wish to learn of it if anyone has, because some things are beyond the pale even to the most irreverent of my friends; some things are just not remotely amusing and I would personally place the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo into this category.
That is my personal opinion – Je Suis Ahmed, certainly, but I am not Charlie. If I ever found myself in the unlikely position where anything I said or wrote made any real difference and I was invited to either support the right of grown men to sneer at their fellows by way of vicious cartoons, or else to help little children and their loving parents experience the joy and pleasure of making harmless figures out of snow, then I’d help out the families and the snowmen in the blink of an eye. Every time.
Love and peace to one and all.