Skip to main content

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I haven't said much so far about the attack in Paris yesterday. Call me a contrarian, but while the rest of the West is rallying behind "free expression," I'm much more uneasy about the whole thing. Here's why...I detest anti-religious bigots just as much as people who kill in the name of religion.

Yes, we should be rallying around France today. And, absolutely, the cartoons had a right to exist. And, no, terrorists shouldn't burst into the offices of non-violent journalists and shoot. But this is not about free speech per se.

I'm aware of the long history of political and religious satire in France. Voltaire himself--I'm a huge fan--was both a harsh critic of the Church and proponent of free thought. But he also said about forgiving others with tolerance: "Qu’est-ce que la tolérance? C’est l’apanage de l’humanité. Nous sommes tous pétris de faiblesses et d’erreurs; pardonnons-nous réciproquement nos sottises, c’est la première loi de la nature." 

I spent the morning listening to a BBC interviewer trying to get Parisians to admit that perhaps Charlie Hebdo went too far...nobody would take the bait. It's a tough, complicated conversation that nobody on the street wants to attempt on-air. I'll be blunt--they were first class idiots, culturally insensitive, Islamophobic, and wrong.

But within their right to publish. There's the rub.

We want to talk about free speech, but in reality there is something else even greater...the right to be left alone. And a defender of the cartoons may say that they were aimed not at ALL believers. Just as so many anti-religious critics of faith want to say they are really against abuse, violence, and those who claim their religion is the only valid one. But how many anti-religious critics make this clear? How many of the anti-religious fail to specify who the real target is? How many religious critics are really using their mocking to complain about other things like politics or economics? The attack on Muslims is but a thinly veiled stand-in for darker themes. Bashing Muslims is like bashing puppies or children...rather than attack the roots of behavior, surface traits are easy to complain about. It's easier to complain about Islamic terror than the problems of democracy, economics, and human rights in Islamic nations.

Here in the United States, our political debate of the last decade is largely over the role of government and how much of a "right to be left alone" people have. Conservatives accuse nearly any government action of being too much encroachment on individuals. Liberals see the government's role as facilitating jobs, wages, food, healthcare, and clean air so that individuals may then pursue other aims.

In France, there is a right-wing trying to cleanse itself of waves of Muslim immigration. The failure to "assimilate" quickly enough, the drag of the French economy, the problems of post-Colonial worldwide political upheaval, the history of religious dominance of the political's easy for the French (or British or Germans for that matter, in their own nations) to bash Islam. And, particularly, to use the violence of political terrorism as an excuse towards xenophobia.

These are things we're not talking about post-Charlie. I am not Charlie. I do not stand with anti-religious zealots who publish inflammatory cartoons about mistreated, minority faiths. I stand with a democratic, free France that was attacked by violent radicals. But the whole thing comes out neutral in the wash.

The lesson from Charlie is don't be an idiot either way. I have a hard time rallying around that as an especially profound sentiment in a time of unfortunate loss of life.