I hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo until the attack on the magazine’s headquarters in Paris earlier this year. I quickly learned that it was a satirical publication, so one of my first thoughts was that it might turn out to be some treasure trove of wit and humour that had previously escaped my notice.
I have a marked appetite for this kind of thing as I’d studied Juvenal’s ferocious Satires at school, I’d regularly read Private Eye and I’d been impressed by the snarling savagery produced by the likes of the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols. I’d also grown up listening to protest songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Doors, while I’d long admired Hogarth’s works, to mention just a few of the inspired creations that have caught my attention and captured my imagination over the years.
Admittedly, I made no attempt to trawl through their entire back catalogue, because after just half an hour or so of glancing through Charlie Hebdo’s output, I was certain that nothing I would ever discover would be to my taste. I’m familiar with the literary and artistic device of employing ironic black humour to make a point and I’ll admit that there’s a time and a place for such a thing, but the subtleties and nuances of Charlie Hebdo’s use of these principles were lost on me, because I came to the view that I’d seen more sophisticated words and imagery scrawled on the walls of public toilets.
So, I’m not a fan. I don’t have any admiration – sneaking or otherwise – for Charlie Hebdo, while I’m bemused by the way it’s seen and portrayed by some as being at the forefront of cutting-edge satire and humour. Gerard Biard, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, defended the publication of cartoons depicting the crash of an airliner in the Sinai desert by saying, “This magazine is supposed to be irreverent….” which shows, if nothing else, that he can judiciously employ a euphemism when the occasion requires it.
As part of his criticism of the Kremlin for daring to articulate the grief of the bereaved in Russia by complaining about these cartoons, he added, “Their argument about sacrilege is absurd. Are we supposed to no longer comment on the news in a different way, or to say nothing more than it’s sad? If so that becomes a problem for freedom of expression.”
Unfortunately, I can see his point. If your brand is so well-defined that your literary output is effectively limited to mocking the anguish of innocents, then I suppose it’s inevitable that when challenged, you’ll retreat into the nebulous philosophical abstractions surrounding ‘freedom of speech’ in an attempt to defend your right to behave in a cruel and inhuman fashion towards those who are blameless, vulnerable and undeserving of such poison, and to profit from it.
“Cunning is the dark sanctuary of incapacity”.
The Earl of Chesterfield.