Like most Americans, until January 7th I was pretty much unaware of Charlie Hebdo despite spending a lot of time in France. So I Googled it and got the idea. Satire. Political cartoons. Gross political cartoons. Lots of penises and anuses, hideous old women with saggy boobs, the sorts of caricatures found on the walls of jr. high boys’ bathrooms. Offensive, even disgusting to most Americans, particularly women. Clearly not my thing, but interesting in some weird, sociological way.
Charlie Hebdo, in a French cultural tradition that perhaps more than any other on the planet takes freedom of expression seriously, lampoons everything with boyish, scatological verve. Politicians, writers, all religions, social movements, anything is fair game. Nothing is spared; nothing is sacred. And while the juvenile, bathroom-wall images are occasionally stomach-turning, they’re meant to be. They’re meant to shock, to demolish acceptable patterns of thought and make room for new ones.
Charlie‘s cartoons wouldn’t survive three minutes anywhere but France, where social awareness and social criticism are the national religion and ridiculed on its pages as often as any other. They wouldn’t survive because they quite deliberately overstep the boundaries of acceptable public imagery. (Father, son and holy ghost in sexual congress? So over the top.) But hey, I’ll take gross cartoons any day over one entire magazine office and a kosher grocery heaped with dead bodies.
Islamic radicals, Christian radicals, Jewish radicals, French cartoonist radicals – all have the right to espouse their ideas while the rest of us have the right to ignore them. But those who attempt to seize social power through mindless slaughter rather than the exercise of intelligence are simply The Beast, primitive, barbaric and loathsome.