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Mike Littwin

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

Littwin: Never mind the Bollocks, here’s Charlie Hebdo

Littwin: Never mind the Bollocks, here’s Charlie Hebdo

We may not all be Charlie Hebdo, but we live these days in a Charlie Hebdo world.

And you can find what we’ll call a Charlie Hebdo moment almost anywhere you look.

click on the image to enlarge

Click on the image to see enlarge.

We can begin with a New York Times account of the making of the post-massacre issue of Charlie Hebdo. It was just after 9 o’clock on Monday night when Renald Luzier, the cartoonist known as Luz, finally came up with the cover. Luz had been late to the office the day of the killing. That’s why he was there Monday to draw the cover.

It had to be perfect. Not only is the whole world watching, but the whole world is going to want a copy. In fact, they may print as many as 3 million copies of the satirical weekly newspaper, which usually has a run of 60,000.

When Luz got it right, the surviving staff broke out in cheers, and then came cries of “Allahu akbar,” and that was perfect, too, because newsrooms, in the best of times, are irreverent, but this was an entirely different time.

The staff was working in a newsroom borrowed from the left-wing newspaper Liberation, working on computers donated by the Guardian. Outside, heavily armed police were guarding the doors. Inside, Luz, armed with his pen, had drawn a cartoon showing the prophet Muhammad holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie,” a tear running down his cheek, with the words written “Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven).

We’ve gotten Charlie Hebdo wrong. It’s a magazine less about free expression than about the right to offend.

It’s pretty close to perfect, as the Times story noted. But, of course, the New York Times is not running the cartoon, although it did link to it from its website. There’s a Charlie Hebdo moment for you.

I understood — although I didn’t agree with — the Times’ earlier decision not to run the cartoons that had been the point of contention. You could see how the decision was made. Charlie Hebdo is not just irreverent. Charlie Hebdo runs cartoons that provoke for the sake of provocation. It calls itself — provocatively and ironically — an irresponsible publication. And the Times, along with many other papers, did not want to gratuitously offend Muslim readers.

But this cartoon was the story of a massacre as told by the survivors. Whether it offended anyone seemed beside the point. In any case, it was hardly gratuitous. It was both poignant and pointed. Choosing not to run this cartoon seems to be the offensive — and irresponsible — decision.

But you have to know that we’ve basically gotten Charlie Hebdo wrong. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker this week, the survivors at Charlie Hebdo don’t quite know how to take their new roles as martyrs and as “misunderstood messengers of the right to free expression.” Charlie Hebdo is less about free expression than about the right to offend, in any way the newspaper sees fit.

But after the killings, they have been adopted by the politicians and religious leaders they have regularly skewered — and not just skewered. They skewer in a peculiarly French fashion, in a way that would never work in mainstream America.

As Gopnik put it, Charlie Hebdo goes after politicians and priests and rabbis and imams with cartoons in which they “amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances.”

Some of the cartoons have been called racist, and, though they’re not, they don’t mind coming close. They are proudly secular and, for that matter, proudly anti-religious. And so, it is strange to see American conservatives also adopt Charlie Hebdo. There was, for example, the Christmas issue, in which we were given “The True Story of the Baby Jesus” and a cartoon of a surprised Mary giving full frontal birth to Jesus.

If Charlie was born of the ’60s left, it is not exactly 21st-century liberal, and some liberals don’t know what to make of it. Some conservatives, meanwhile, have decided simply to ignore the real Charlie Hebdo in order to embrace the Charlie that takes on Islam.

That, in and of itself, is what makes for a Charlie Hebdo moment.

These moments are easy to find. Take the faux outrage over Obama’s tin-earism on the Parisian unity march. More than a million Parisians showed up for a march Sunday. More than 40 world leaders were there. Obama didn’t go. There may not have been time, or sufficient security, to make it work. But he also didn’t send Joe Biden or John Kerry. Instead, America was represented by the American ambassador.

It was a mistake, as the White House would later admit, although French President Francois Hollande said he was in no way offended.

Still, the ever-offended Ted Cruz took the non-unity approach to write this: “Many of our allies gathered together in Paris yesterday in an admirable display of determination. Our President should have been there, because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies. We should never hesitate to speak the truth. In Paris or anywhere else in the world.”

Cruz was not speaking the truth, of course. He was going after Obama because he found a way to go after Obama. Many Republicans, the one who used to call the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and used to bash Kerry for being too French, chimed in. One, congressman Randy Weber, went to so far as to tweet (note the spelling): “Even Adolph Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris. (For all the wrong reasons.) Obama couldn’t do it for right reasons.”

No, we’re not all Charlie Hebdo. But I’d love to see what its cartoonists would do with that.

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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 Comment

  1. Colin J. Guthrie on said:

    @Carol Jacobs-Carre:

    No. That’s a matter of more or less strictly “home-grown” behavior, where those venting have an audience more or less “made to order” already. But, then again, I also didn’t see all that many Republican right-wingnuts IN Paris, for the march, either; so . . . perhaps, it “balances out”?

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