Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo. Tragedy and Truth in Paris.


Freedom of speech has burst back into the national arena following the shocking, cold-blooded murder of twelve workers at Charlie Hebdo, a Parisian satirical magazine which rose to notoriety for its provocative cartoons, caricatures and its gleeful parody of powerful institutions. Fearlessly, if not recklessly, venturing beyond reason and decorum to attack religious extremism of all persuasions, Charlie Hedbo won a certain ill-repute and, until recently, a loyal, if declining, following whilst simultaneously attracting many sworn enemies.

No stranger to controversy including death threats, the magazine’s offices were fire-bombed in 2011 over a special issue featuring a cartoon impression of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed as its editor-in-chief, Charlie Hebdo. To outsiders bereft of key critical French cultural contexts and constructs, much of the humour is lost in translation but its irrepressible iconoclasm and confronting irreverence are unmistakeable and doubtless not unattractive to readers who might already struggle with authority, convention and political correctness.  It set out to shock and shock it did, often crudely. Yet a publication must do more than be confronting to earn its audience.

A recent issue depicts clearly pregnant kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls screaming in unison. Their plea? Don’t touch our ‘allocs’ (allowances.)  It’s funny only to those who can desensitise feelings of repulsion towards Boko Haram and to the abduction and rape of 300 young women. And even then it runs the risk of simply cementing the prejudices of readers seeking confirmation of their animus towards migrant welfare bludgers and women.

Unfettered by good taste or common decency, the magazine did not hold itself back. Doubtless, even our own George Brandis would have felt a warm inner glow at Charlie Hebdo’s liberal propagation of blasphemous images, racial stereotypes and insults bordering on hate speech, (a crime which is rigorously prosecuted in France, despite much recent misreporting), as a vision of what he could achieve in Australia with the repeal of section 18c.  Even Brandis, however, could not pretend that such views were in demand: Charlie Hebdo was a basket case financially despite its government subsidy, (subsidies help explain why there are 1500 newspapers in Paris.) Now, ironically, sales are booming worldwide with the latest edition offered for auction on eBay and attracting thousand pound bids. Yet none of it persuades me that Je suis Charlie.

Rude good health of sorts has been restored to the mortally wounded Charlie Hebdo after the tragic loss of life of its creative midwives, rekindling gallows humourists and satirists’ interest in the phrases ‘over my dead body’ and the Gallic protestation to love something or someone Je t’aime à la folie, jusqu’à la mort. (I love you madly until death.) Whilst an issue has been published in a quixotic gesture of defiance, it remains to be seen, however, what direction the revitalised paper will take from now on.

Equally unknowable is the future of the Charlie Hebdo movement although its longevity looks already in doubt. Although many would like to assume that there is a cause at stake, it is difficult to state precisely what that cause may be unless we imagine a society that is better for having a freedom to be crudely, cruelly insensitive and calculatedly offensive, a freedom to hold all things up to merciless ridicule. Yet the Charlie Hedbo phenomenon is nothing without its quixotic followers.

The brutal unforgivable summary execution, of a dozen Charlie Hedbo workers led to a collective outburst of anger and grief in a massive popular demonstration in Parisian streets of a nature not seen since VE Day. More than a rally, however, the terrorists’ attack prompted a type of raptus, exciting and inflaming passions whilst capturing the public imagination.

Now the whole world, it seems, has become if not French, at least keenly interested in paying homage to Charlie. Golden Globes Award, commentators elevated it to The Je suis Charlie movement whilst photographers thoughtfully provided stars with signs, buttons and placards, prêt à porter, as it were. And whilst alert entrepreneurs around the world flock to this latest cause celebre, there is no knowing where it will end. It is reported that the phrase Je suis Charlie has been the subject of patent applications by several enterprising international citizens. But what is Je suis Charlie? What does it mean? Is it anything more than a fleeting folie a foule, an ephemeral group madness?

What is happening in Paris and in the spiritual, imaginary or completely fictive Paris of the hearts and minds of the international community and what it means is a complex, multilayered phenomenon best interpreted cautiously, yet this has not deterred mass media and other commercial interests from providing ready to wear labels, in the quest for making meaning or a host of other related quests such as to foster, adopt or take it over.

In the process, as is to be expected, a blurring of focus and some wilful distortion have taken place. Widespread, for example, is an urge to characterise, explain and identify, a dynamic that is not confined to the professional myth-makers in the international scrimmage over the chance to say what Je suis Charlie represents.

‘It’s about self-expression,’ a protestor volunteered yesterday whilst George Clooney expressed his own take from the Golden Globes stage with:

‘There were millions people that marched . . . in support of the idea that we will not walk in fear. We won’t do it. So, je suis Charlie.’

Support for progressive causes is not unfashionable in modern Hollywood but some in the audience would have recalled Ronald Reagan and his shopping of fellow actors and competitors to the House Committee for Un-American activities which began its witch hunt in 1945 and faded only in the early 1950s or the double lives led by actors afraid to declare their sexuality and who walked in fear lest the truth would ruin their careers. In this context, however, Clooney’s support for the ‘Charlie thing…’ however vaguely defined is refreshing.

Support should never be overanalysed. Much current interest in Je suis Charlie initially seems to have been a simple, instinctive and undifferentiated sympathy; a public identification, manifested in the rally; at best a spontaneous and uncomplicated expression of compassion for the victims and their families. Immediately, however, commentators have packaged and promoted this feeling into a statement of solidarity by supporters of free speech, freedom of expression and even self-expression. In the circumstances it is useful to carefully establish our own perspective.

People took to the streets to defend their right to say what they like and to protest at the brutal, barbaric outrage that cost the lives of twelve staff at Charlie Hebdo and the wounding of many others. What motivated them is a more complex and profound matter but at heart the rally was a massive and unprecedented public display of camaraderie not seen for decades in Parisian streets. Naturally this first reading of events only touches the surface of what is ultimately a complex, multi-layered phenomenon in its own right but it is important it not to lose sight of what it was before we draw long bows as to why and how.

On the surface, the Je suis Charlie demonstration remains a remarkable phenomenon which drew record crowds in an arresting, collective outpouring of outrage, anger and sorrow. Few could be unmoved by such a spontaneous popular demonstration of feeling. This is not to forget, of course, that many complex cross currents were at work beneath the surface but rather to observe the significance of an instinctive, naive accord, a simple, collective call to action in a complex and conflicted modern world.

At best, the march seemed a rallying cry for Europe’s leaders, even if solidarity was more elusive: the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was later airbrushed out of the report published in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper which edited her out of a picture of world leaders at the Paris march against terror. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who shoved others out of the way to get there, tweeted an edited image of himself in the front row of world leaders while cropping the shot to exclude Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Liberty, equality and fraternity, it seems, cannot be taken too far but for a moment it looked as if all were well.

According to New York-based newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward cameras for a local media outlet caught Netanyahu elbowing aside a woman French minister as he tried to jump the queue for the bus that would transport the group to the starting point of the (Je suis Charlie) march. Finding himself relegated to the second row at the march, he shoved aside the president of Mali and inserted himself in the front row.

Other statements, however, particularly our Prime Minister’s exhortation to Australia’s cartoonists to ‘keep on drawing’ and the recent resurgence of calls for our defamation laws to be relaxed are more problematic suggesting that we are conflicted as a nation and as individuals in what we see as reasonable limits on our freedom of speech.

Whilst we rise as one to protest our outrage at the hideous atrocity carried out in the name of Islam in Paris by two French citizens with an Algerian background who chose murder with AK47s as their own barbaric form of remonstration and redress we are less united when it comes to our defence of basic freedoms at home. And just how far are we prepared to take our vicarious indulgence?

Let us consider one hypothetical parallel. Imagine the fuss if a cartoon were published which depicted our Prime Minister and George Pell in a French kiss, perhaps with the caption, Je suis Georgie’s boy. Or the former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s image is drawn above one of his previous portfolio’s slogans: where the bloody hell are you? Cambodia, Nauru, Manus, as long it’s not Australia, we don’t care.

Such speculation has already led to a local war of words. Tim Wilson who must be the most fortunate government appointee ever, a man who was given the Federal government’s Human Rights Commissioner’s job via a phone call from George Brandis without so much as a job interview and who has obediently spruiked government lines on matters ranging from challenging the science of global warming to arguing for changes to the racial discrimination act to promote ‘real’ freedom of speech on TV and radio has come out with the claim that Charlie Hebdo would not be published in Australia. Expect a rush as other LNP supporters ride in his coat-tails. We will be told we need to ‘revisit’ a law which at present protects those who might otherwise be cruelly attacked for their origins. Worthies such as Andrew Bolt may well weigh into the debate. Expect more nonsense in the name of freedom of speech. Just don’t expect enlightenment.

As 2015 begins, Australians are curiously positioned between the PM’s incongruous and gratuitous piece of advice to cartoonists not to self-censor and his government, a government which has made much of the need to forgo certain freedoms in the interest of national security, a government which has already enacted legislation restricting its citizens’ freedom of speech in the name of anti-terrorism, a government which has our metadata and the right to use it against us without challenge. Charlie Hebdo, it is true, has become an international cause celebre with followers and advocates in the most unlikely places but let’s just keep things in perspective. It is less about freedom and freedom of expression or any other warm and fuzzy vibe than about realpolitik and a means to an end for governments who would put the freedom genie firmly back in the bottle as they seek to mobilise us against the evils of death cults and terror, prosecuting the politics of division while constraining individual liberty and strengthening state control.