Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

Littwin: Now that’s blasphemy

The idea the Charlie Hebdo staff members were killed for expressing was that expressing ideas, offensive and provocative, is what really matters.

Littwin: Now that’s blasphemy

We can, and do, all agree that the murders in Paris were horrific. But we don’t have to agree on Charlie Hebdo.

In fact, if we did all agree on the French satirical weekly, those who died there — those who died for an idea that begins with the right to offend those who most insist on being offended – wouldn’t have done their job.

(Just as one example, Catholic League president Bill Donahue said in a statement that “Muslims were right to be angry” about Charlie Hebdo. He called murdered editor Stephane Charbonnier “narcissistic” and said he “didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” Now that is offensive.)

Charlie Hebdo was born of the ’60s — after its predecessor, Hari-Kari, closed in controversy for having mocked the death of Charles de Gaulle — and is tied to a French tradition that, I’ve read, goes back at least as far as the lampooning of Marie Antoinette. You can see a collection of covers here if you want to understand how the newspaper glories in offending governments and religions and popes and politicians and priests and writers and actors and anyone else.

It has regularly offended Jews and Christians and Muslims (according to the New York Times, it has been sued 14 times by the Roman Catholic church). It had been cautioned — about being incautious — by the French government. But the Islamist who threatens to kill because a cartoonist has drawn Muhammad would naturally be irresistible to those who draw cartoons — often sublime in their vulgarity — at Charlie Hebdo.

The target was not just irresistible, it was dangerous. Great humor is always dangerous, although not, you’d hope, in this way.

But if the editor and other cartoonists who died — among the 12 who died in the attack, including two policemen — were heroes, they could hardly have been anything else. This is what they did. It’s who they were. One, Georges Wolinski, was 80; Jean Cabut was 76. They were both famous for their work. They both had worked at Charlie Hebdo forever. They weren’t about to give up what they do.

You know by now the story of how the magazine’s offices were firebombed in 2011 — after announcing that the prophet Muhammad would be editor in chief of the next edition — and how the magazine responded to the threat with a cover cartoon of a male cartoonist sharing a big wet kiss with an Islamic man, the office in ruins in the background. The caption read “L’amour: Plus fort que la haine,” which translates as “Love: Stronger than hate.” But it’s not about forgiveness, of course. It’s about the same-sex kiss and homophobia. Perfect.

And you’ve read by now the quote from editor Charbonnier, who said he would “rather die standing than live on his knees.” And so he struggled to keep his smallish, 30,000-circulation weekly alive and lived with a cop outside the office for protection.

All the jokes about so-called French cowardice — or freedom fries — don’t seem quite so funny now. But at Charlie Hebdo, I’m sure they still would be, which is the point. My favorite cartoon reaction — the Washington Post printed many of them — is from Dutch cartoonist Joep Bertrams, who shows a terrorist looking in dismay at the cartoonist he has just beheaded. Why the dismay? Because the cartoonist is somehow still sticking out his tongue at the killer. This is what the great cartoonists do.

charlie hebdo onster

No one can be surprised by the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo. We live in a time of Islamist terrorist attacks, and France is at the center of Europe’s inability, or unwillingness, to deal with its Muslim population. But I don’t see how yelling “Allahu Akbar” will convince anyone that this is about religion. And it’s certainly not about labeling a billion people for the acts of three or 300 or 3,000. Most of those killed around the world by these terrorists are, of course, Muslim.

Terror, as it is often said, is about the use of terror, which is its own kind of sick religion. As Ross Douthat wrote in the Times, we have a need for Charlie Hebdo-like blasphemy in a liberal society. “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something,” he writes, “then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said …” You don’t give veto power to terrorists, or you might as well give up everything.

But the point, I think, is that no one gets to define blasphemy for the rest of us. We each get our own shot at that. There’s nothing inherently good or right or funny or wrong about mocking someone’s religion. This was about the right, and the need, to mock that which says it cannot be mocked.

Every edition is a French lesson in the essence of our own First Amendment, which is entirely unnecessary to protect inoffensive speech or, for that matter, inoffensive cartoons. That same lesson should apply to our own government finding the need to apologize for someone’s offensive video.

The journalists weren’t killed for drawing cartoons. They were killed for insisting on their right to have ideas and to express them.

That’s my idea of blasphemy.

[Paris graffiti: “Let ink flow, not blood.”]

Like this story? Steal it! Feel free to republish it in part or in full, just please give credit to The Colorado Independent and add a link to the original.

Got a tip? Story pitch? Send us an e-mail. Follow The Colorado Independent on Twitter.

About the Author

Mike Littwin

He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
mlittwin@coloradoindependent.com | Twitter @mike_littwin


  1. Colin J. Guthrie on said:

    One of the finest analyses of the situation and its causes and ramifications I’ve ever read. The reverse of the coin of the right to freedom of belief is, always, the equal right to FREEDOM OF NON-BELIEF!

    Those who create their own little “god”, in their own image and likeness, and then expect everyone else to fall down before it, are, in the end, more dangerous to the continuation of progress, growth, and increase of civilization than anything else in the world. And true “blasphemy” IS NOT mocking and satirizing such crackpot nut-cults, and their phony-holy-balonys. Rather it is the hubris of the nut-cult’s founding crackpot, in attempting to displace the Infinite with his/her own minuscule and finite idiotology.

    It’s too bad the WASP crackpot nut-cults DO NOT, and CANNOT see themselves as others see them.

  2. Carol on said:

    Freedom of belief or non belief is hardly the issue here. Freedom of expression is.

    To be able to express your non-belief in as hateful a manner as you want (as you did)is what is meant, not the ability to believe or not.

    Freedom of religion means something like you won’t be coerced into a religion. It does go hand in hand with freedom of expression.

  3. Eric on said:

    I second that your analysis is much better than most articles I could read. It gets, like myself, lost in its final words.

    I come from France and now live in California. These people were driven nuts for some reason or another, and we have to keep our own wits. We need to push higher education everywhere, especially at home, denounce loudly our own horrific torture policy, fight hunger and diseases.

    Those who need any form of god ought to wonder why, what is missing in their lives, and how these assassins became convinced they were martyrs. Without any god, I am educated enough to understand I know nothing of the universe I find myself into, and humble enough that I can ask for help if I ever find myself in a dire strait.

    Cabu was able to fill all his life with rebelion against all forms of dictats, religious, political, socialogical, etc. The perfect peaceful anarchist, although it was much harder and braver 35 years ago and I do not know if he ever revendicated this side.

    Wolinsky (bless his soul) was a little too weird for me, but that is how normal people should function: not my stuff, non violent, move on.

    I kind of disagree with “the unwillingness to DEAL with whichever population”. To begin with, when I am in a different country, I try to be nice and adopt most of its rules, but I also seem to remember one of the largest mosque in the world was built in my neighborhood (Evry) a long time ago.

    There is something as being straight. If we let ourselves live in a place where no one feels safe to emit any opinion, that is the place were we end: in fear.

    Religion is the ugly face of our ignorance. That is where the scare comes from. Grow up a couple of millenia or ums and face that we know nothing in this scary emptiness.

    Stop killing people, for whatever’s sake!

    I think of myself as a respectable man who loved Hara Kiri when it came out because it was our time to really embrace freedom of expression.

    Monitored by big bro, unfortunately the best of what we have of course.

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>