Charlie Hebdo and the Snowmen

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.

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Love and peace to one and all.

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4 Responses to Charlie Hebdo and the Snowmen

  1. It’s a funny old world Dennis. I think it was yourself that I wrote privately to (skirting around this issue.. a few years back now). It is primarily a free speech issue as far as I can see, though Hebdo seems to be overly provocative. But if you can not satirise a religion, then you would have to think twice about the idea of publishing any other sort of work that might impact on a religion.

    I have one acquaintance, in a country far away, who insists that the Harry Potter books are the embodiment of pure evil (amongst other proclamations). I have wondered what that person would think of a non fiction work that could be seen as against religion in some way.

    For example, say one were to discover evidence which could explain why, how and where a major religion grew so quickly: I’m thinking primarily about your book and something we discussed a long time back. Perhaps that would give atheists more ammunition, but perhaps the apologists would argue that the similarities only proved that God’s work was evident prior to his messenger?

    Either way, as long as satire is acceptable, then the publication of research or fiction is acceptable. Once satire starts to be reined in, fundamentalists can rely on self censorship for everything else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • eternalidol says:

      Well, if nothing else, all this is a huge subject that provides endless food for thought, although right now I can’t see how all these many issues and contradictions will ever be resolved. Each country has a different idea of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, while it’s clear that within even ‘enlightened’ countries, not everyone’s singing from the same hymn sheet.

      I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books, but I think J.K Rowling achieved a cultural revolution by getting so many millions of children to sit down and want to read huge volumes full of text, which to my mind can only be a good thing. My two kids devoured them and loved them all, so I admit that I can’t see any grounds – reasonable or otherwise – for seeing the books as evil, although I’m aware that many people see them this way.

      My mind’s still reeling from all the Hebdo coverage and commentary, with all the many issues they throw up, and I’m seriously minded to write another post dealing with what I see as hypocrisy on the part of many writers covering these events. I’ll just say for now that I think of myself as broad-minded and humorous, but I was genuinely shocked by how ugly, vicious, provocative and unfunny the cartoons I saw were.

      Like

  2. Chris says:

    Dennis, thanks for making an eloquent contribution on a matter that in my world was defying verbalisation. It is indeed extraordinary that no mainstream media in the UK was capable of discussing the real nature of “Charlie”, although the Dutch pensioners with whom I trek through the countryside every fortnight seemed to be well informed. It seems to be that an objective understanding of facts and positions is a-priori for forming opinions, although it can never be acceptable to kill people for drawing pictures you do not like or for wearing uniforms.

    Thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

    • eternalidol says:

      Chris,

      I imagine that the reason so many people found it difficult to articulate the broad views that I expressed is simply because they were fearful of being labelled as collaborators, apologists or as people who tacitly supported terrorism. I’m still reading opinion pieces or editorials that classify politely as rabid polemics on the subject of ‘supporting free speech’ and one of the more insidious arguments that is being used is the observation that some people/traitors believe that “Charlie Hebdo had it coming”.

      These precise words are being used to imply that many westerners believe it was right that the journalists and police were shot in Paris, deliberately ignoring the common useage that speaks of an event being virtually inevitable given all the attendant circumstances. Let’s face it – Derek Bentley was actually hanged in Wandsworth Prison on January 28th 1953 for coming out with an equally ambiguous expression, so it’s hardly surprising if others struggle to make their thoughts known, then abandon the attempt as being far more trouble that it’s worth.

      For my part, I’ve read extensively about Charlie Hebdo and my opinion is that it’s a deeply unfunny and unpleasant publication, but I don’t feel there’s any contradiction between saying that and also saying that I don’t approve of what the gunmen did in Paris over the course of the three days in question.

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