Killed for Kidding

In the current New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a thoughtful piece about last week's massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He provides some useful history, makes some important distinctions, and points out that, even in an era when the capacity of images to shock is supposed to have been enfeebled by "repetition and availability," a cartoon can still enrage. "Drawings are handmade, the living sign of an ornery human intention, rearing up against a piety." Like William T. Cavanaugh, Gopnik is uneasy with efforts to turn the victims into martyrs—but for a very different reason:

For those who recall Charlie Hebdo as it really, rankly was, the act of turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety—making them misunderstood messengers of the right to free expression—seems to risk betraying their memory.... A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn't just mock those men's politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances.

That's well put. But then, in the very next sentence, Gopnik takes momentary leave of his usual clarity and elegance to write, "It is wonderful to see Pope Francis condemning the horror, but also worth remembering that magazine's special Christmas issue, titled 'The True Story of Baby Jesus,' whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child." Notably frontal birth? As opposed to what? Somebody needs to explain to Gopnik what Catholics believe about the virgin birth. He seems to have it confused with some weird version of the birth of Athena.

But his larger point is sound. If Wolinski, Cabu, Charb, and Tignous—four of the best known cartoonists in France—are going to be celebrated as national (or international) heroes, they should be celebrated for who they really were and what they really did. As Gopnik writes,

The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what the cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility.

Even that last phrase sounds too pious to my ears. How about the fun of ignobility. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo had fun making fun. They spent their whole careers trying to be outrageous, trying to offend, and there is nothing particularly heroic about that. But in the end, after the threats of violence began to arrive, they could continue to be outrageous only by being courageous too—by refusing to let terrorists decide what they were allowed to draw and print. Like most Catholics and most Americans (few of whom had ever heard of the magazine before last week), I can't honestly say, "Je suis Charlie." And in a way, that's beside the point. Solidarity is not always a function of identity. Enough to be able to say, along with many who've never read it and many others whose ox it regularly gores, "Vive Charlie Hebdo!"


UPDATE: Below is the cover of this week's edition of Charlie Hebdo.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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