Settle in, friends, because this post is a long one and I can’t promise it is perfectly edited or articulated, but given the events of the past week, as a self-proclaimed Francophile and someone with deep emotional, friend and family ties to that country, as well as a dedicated scholar of post-colonial studies and staunch believer in social justice, I felt that I had to say something about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.
When I heard the news last Tuesday morning the first thing I said was, “Oh shit.” I went into work late, staying home to listen to BBC and text my sister and friends in Paris, knowing some of them lived and work close by to the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I texted friends working as journalists, wanting to give them the biggest hug for doing what they do.
And then one of those days that I wish I never had to experience, but have become too common over the past few years. Glued to the media. Could not turn away from social media. Obsessive hitting of the refresh button. Needing to look away, but unable to look away. And then another day like that. And another. All week I’ve been reading a lot in French and in English this week, keeping windows from Liberation and Le Monde open on my browser.
As events unfolded again I felt a feeling that has become all too familiar. A feeling that this is surreal. A feeling that this cannot possibly be happening. A feeling that this is a political turning point and we don’t know where the chips will fall next. Overall, I was heartbroken.
My sister has lived and worked in Paris since the late 1980s and I remember when I talked to her shortly after September 11th, 2001. I had just arrived in New York City weeks before, and she told me brusquely, “Of course it was Al Qaeda, that was the first thing I thought of. Of course it was Bid Laden.” In my 20 year old naivte then, I didn’t even know who that was, or that such a thing might be even imaginable, much less possible. Now we are living in world where such radical acts of extremism are possible, and have been possible for quite some time. It is also a world where slavery was possible. Where colonialism was possible. Where massacre in the name of religion is possible. Where exploitation of all kinds in the name of faith, capitalism, and consolidation of power have been and are possible.
In all my years visiting and studying in France I never picked up Charlie Hebdo. I saw it as a very old school, very French magazine, comfortable at thumbing its nose at everyone. It was a publication that I, who believes in being sensitive to all viewpoints and backgrounds, felt was one note and too abrasive for my personal tastes. However, I thought that it was indicative of a larger attitude in French culture. This is a position that privileges satire, flouting of authority, and snubbing ones nose at what is considered socially acceptable and polite.
Yes, it is a pompous position that comes from a former colonial power that still struggles to acknowledge the impact that colonial legacy has on its current policies (the riots in working class suburbs and housing projects in 2005 being a very clear example). Yes, it is a position of privilege that often does not acknowledge the (often straight, white, male and well educated) position of the author, and yes, I personally found some they published offensive or at least in “bad taste,” but that was part of the point. This piece in the New York Times explains well the satirical, comic tradition that Charlie Hebdo comes out of and summed up a lot of my feelings about the place of political humor to boot. Media Studies professor Catherine Lu wrote this piece about the specific intellectual history that Charlie Hebdo comes out of and urges intellectuals to resist making overly easy and prudish conclusions about racism or history.
Overall, these cartoons were just part of a range of a media landscape that seemed to me part of a democratic debate and one very particular viewpoint – the kind that likes to be offensive for the sake of it and you know that, but occasionally they have something very prescient to say.
This comes at a moment of rising Islamophobia in Europe (and the US), which is also another indication of France (and Europe’s) unexamined colonial legacy. I cringed as I watched American news media interview old French ladies in furs in classic, posh looking cafes griping about how they felt like “those people” did not understand the nature of “being French.”
I, like all of my French friends who I have talked to, fear the political backlash from these events. That like the United States after 9/11 there will be a turn towards the conservative, the patriotic, the unquestioning idea of what constitutes “France,” “Frenchness,” and “European.” And, yet, look at what else happened in France on Sunday the 11th. The massive united rallies across the country, with supposedly the one in Paris drawing over 3 million people, seemed free from an overt, jingoistic overtone. They were respectful, they were reflective.
I could hardly imagine the same thing happening in the US, and certainly the only post-9/11 demonstrations I attended were massive anti-war rallies, as I was convinced (and remained convinced) that a violent retaliation to a violent event will only lead to more violence. There were not masses of people chanting the French equivalent of “USA! USA!” but rather a show of respect and solidarity for the victims and a clamoring for the right for freedom of expression as the basis for a democratic society. And the far right Front National actively discouraged from participating.
I think back (murkily, it’s been a long time) to the broader American response post-9/11 and I remember as a newly minted New Yorker the crises of “We are all NYC!” rankled me. “Are you breathing the air full of corpses and asbestos?” I remember asking rhetorically, “Then you are not a New Yorker.” For my Parisian friends, how do you feel about the “Nous sommes tous Charlie” sentiment? Similar? Different?
My former neighbor and comic artist Matt Madden, who has been living in France for the past few years, wrote this touching piece about why yes, “I am Charlie,” despite his initial hesitation. I think the piece that summed up my feelings most of all was this one my friend Michel shared, the title which translates to “I am not Charlie, and believe me, I am as devastated as you.” It looks at the institutional and systematic conditions that have created homegrown extremists in France – the same conditions of political disenfranchisement, grinding poverty and lack of real opportunity that create extremists and criminals the world over.
Let us not forget that this is also happening at a time in the United States where unarmed Black men are being killed by overzealous law enforcement and we are experiencing a moment of intense questioning what it means to be in a society that promotes “justice” as a value the world over and yet denies that to our own citizens here at home. The systems that shape extremism in Europe are similar to the ones who shape extremism, hate, fear and violence close to home as well.
My friends Michel and Sabine shared this moving piece from a French school teacher who teaches at a middle school in Seine Saint Denis, a working class suburb northeast of Paris that was at the epicenter of anti-police and anti-government riots in 2005 (not far from where where then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy famously declared that he would to “nettoyer la cite au karcher”[clean up the housing project with a high powered pressure washer] and called working class youth “racaille” or scum). The author talks about how their students, the majority of them Muslim, are critical, smart, nuanced and grateful to talk about the situation, and how in all of this we need to resist simple ideas, solutions and generalizations. It reinforces my feeling that the only way forward is through critical dialogue, thought and critique.
And that is what is at the crux of all of this. The way forward, the way to heal, is not through more dogmatism about what should or should not be allowed to be printed, or who is or is not a certain nationality, but towards building societies that are actually open to debate, disagreement, and mutual respect. That is not a fast moving solution, but a long game. It is not convenient for those who see answers that lie in capitalism, religion or any particular state. I believe it will only come about by looking at the historical roots of the contemporary conflicts that we are facing around the world and doing our best to unravel them. Dialogue and debate are uncomfortable. They are uncertain. When we engage sincerely we sometimes look like idiots. We have to admit where we are wrong and also be strong enough to stand up for our values and what we believe. At the end of it all, I believe this is what the illustrators and journalists working for Charlie Hebdo did, whether or not it’s the way I personally engage in the debate.
As Nick Keppler, a journalist friend, wrote on Facbeook, “I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life and a hopeless irreverent smart-ass for much longer. No one should die for either.”
Nous sommes tous Charlie.