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No, We Are Not Charlie

Second thoughts on the kitsch of the Je suis Charlie meme

Yesterday, reader Aaron Gross called the “Je suis Charlie” meme, signifying solidarity with the murdered French journalists, “kitsch.” He didn’t elaborate, but I am sure he meant kitsch in the Milan Kundera sense of the word. From Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”:

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

The more I think about it, the more I believe Gross is right.

We profess solidarity with French satirists murdered for offending Islamic sensibilities, but many Americans on the left see no problem at all driving people out of their jobs or destroying their businesses because they speak opinions that “blaspheme” against homosexuals. If Floyd Lee Corkins had gotten past the security guard at the Family Research Council and carried out the massacre he planned in part to punish the conservative Christian group for its stance on homosexuality, exactly no one, at least on the Left, would have said, “I am the FRC.” They would have thought, “Well, too bad, but they kind of had it coming.”

And ask yourself: if Islamists had murdered 12 people at a newspaper affiliated with the National Front, would people in France or anywhere else have been remotely as motivated to protest? No, of course not. And I don’t exempt myself from this. My first impulse yesterday when the news broke was to post, “Je suis Charlie” to this blog, and I did. Had it been done to a National Front newspaper, I would have been appalled, but would not have been so quick to claim solidarity with the far-right French group. It is precisely because I know so little about Charlie Hebdo that it was easy to stand with them. That, and because Charlie Hebdo — insofar as I know anything about them — are nothing more than left-wing cranks who threaten no one.

On the Right, if a Christian fanatic who opposed abortion shot and killed a dozen NARAL workers, many of us would be horrified, and many of us would by no means say, even to ourselves, “They kind of had it coming” (though some conservatives would say it). But I can’t think of a single pro-life conservative who would post “I am NARAL” on their blog, or even claim such a thing.

I can’t speak for French sensibilities, obviously, but here in America, it’s easy for us on both the Left and the Right to join the Je suis Charlie mob, because it costs us exactly nothing. Nobody here knows what Charlie Hebdo stands for; all we know is that its staff were the victims of Islamist mass murder, of the sort with which we are all familiar. We know that this murder strikes at one of the basic freedoms we take for granted: freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. Feelings of solidarity with those murdered souls are natural, and even laudable.

But what makes it kitschy is that we love thinking of ourselves standing in solidarity with the brave journalists against the Islamist killers. When the principle of standing up for free speech might cost us something far, far less than our lives, most of us would fold. You didn’t see liberals wearing “I Am Brendan Eich” slogans; many on the Left think he got what he deserved, because blasphemers like him don’t deserve a place in public life. Nor did you see conservatives brandishing “I Am Brendan Eich” slogans, because they feared they might be next.

Aaron Gross is right: for people like me and thee to say Je suis Charlie is kitsch. Again, I understand the feeling that free speech is under siege from Islamist berserkers willing to kill to stamp it out, and it ought to be defended. That’s what I mean by Je suis Charlie, and I know that’s what a lot of people mean. But if you get down to it, I think for most of us, it is not principle, but a form of self-congratulatory sentimentality. It’s easy for us Americans to stand up for Charlie Hebdo because we don’t know much of anything about the newspaper, and its senior staff was wiped out by people (militant Islamists) we rightly regard as scum of the earth, and because that scum did so in the name of a religion that is alien to us, and seen as threatening.

Bring it all back home for a second. Think of a political or cultural organization whose advocacy work you despise. Imagine that its senior staff was murdered by terrorists intending to punish them for their advocacy, and to intimidate other advocates of their ilk into silence. Now, imagine yourself saying, “I Am (That Organization)” as a protest against their murder, and in defense of free speech.

If you can’t do it, then you are not as principled about free speech as you think you are. I couldn’t do it, and I am not. If you can’t imagine wearing an “I Am the Catholic League” (if you are a secular leftist) or “I Am NARAL” (if you are a pro-life conservative) t-shirt in protest of deadly violence against those organizations, then you should think twice about tweeting or claiming the phrase Je suis Charlie. I mean, you can and should be in solidarity with those dead journalists, and hope for their murderers to be caught and punished within the fullest extent of the law. But let’s be honest: for most of us Americans, to claim that we “are” them is kitsch. We may think we are Charlie, but that’s only because it’s cheap and easy to be Charlie. And uplifting: How nice to be moved, with all mankind, by being Charlie. 

UPDATE: Good counterpoint by commenter St. Louisan:

I said “Je suis Charlie” yesterday, knowing that Charlie Hebdo is the same magazine that I (traditionalist, Catholic, Christian Democrat-ish, National Front-understanding) had previously been irritated by whenever I’d seen it.

I said it because, and not despite, the ease with which American media culture piously proclaims our opposition to censorship despite knuckling under to it in practice. We in America and the west are often simply cowards on this point–in theory we are foursquare in favor of free expression and speaking truth to power, but in practice we usually don’t have the heart to stand up to student protesters demanding that speakers be disinvited, activists demanding Brendan Eich be fired, Islamists demanding that Mohammed and Islam not be demeaned, hackers demanding “The Interview” not be shown, etc. And that’s to say nothing of the human rights tribunals in Canada and elsewhere that have driven certain writers across borders. When push comes to shove and someone threatens to go to the mats to shut someone up, they more often than not seem to get their way, in whole or in part. And while many conservatives are quick to blame double standards or liberalism for this, I am fairly confident that if Christian fundamentalists started killing people and blowing things up, media companies would start finding ways to proclaim principle yet give in on specific cases all the time, as they do in other cases now. You certainly wouldn’t see things like the “piss Christ” photograph published, if anyone thought it would lead to their building being firebombed.

That’s what made Charlie Hebdo courageous: they were already firebombed, and their response was to run a cover of a turbaned Muslim man making out with a cartoonist. They knew exactly what they were risking, and did it anyway. The fact that they were risking death to publish some childishly provocative cartoons makes it more audacious: plenty of people have something far more substantial to say, but knuckle under to pressure for fear of lawsuits, protests, lost income, or personal danger. Charlie Hebdo knowingly faced death to publish a cartoon of a naked girl with a burqa sticking out of her butt. For anyone with pretensions to being a journalist or public intellectual, that should be striking and a little humbling.

How many of us are comfortable saying what we say when there’s no danger, but would start hedging and hawing as soon as the stakes get higher? And if we’re willing to hedge and make concessions because we don’t want to get denounced/sued/brought up before a HRC/threatened, then how much of what we say is genuine principle, and how much is just posturing?

For reminding me of that, and more importantly for risking death merely to say something they thought worth saying, I can put aside what they said about the Pope and say “Je suis Charlie.”