1) I don’t think the most important question about what happened is “Do we support Charlie Hebdo?” I think the most important question is, “Do we support, and are we willing to fight for, a society in which people who make things like Charlie Hebdo can work in peace and sleep in their beds each night without fear?”
Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like “murder is bad” and “free speech is good.” None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal.
That last sentence is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The measure of freedom of speech in a society is not simply a matter of what laws are or are not passed. We must also ask which existing laws are or are not enforced; and what self-censorship people perform out of fear that their societies will not or cannot protect them. Freddie writes as though freedom of speech can be adequately evaluated only by reference to the situation de jure; but there are de facto issues that must also be considered.
3) One of the more interesting comments on this whole affair is that of Giles Fraser:
In one sense an iconoclast is someone who refuses the established view of things, who kicks out against cherished beliefs and institutions. Which sounds pretty much like Charlie Hebdo. But the word iconoclast also describes those religious people who refuse and smash representational images, especially of the divine. The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits graven images – which is why there are no pictures of God in Judaism or Islam. And theologically speaking, the reason they are deeply suspicious of divine representation is because they fear that such representations of God might get confused for the real thing. The danger, they believe, is that we might end up overinvesting in a bad copy, something that looks a lot like what we might think of as god, but which, in reality, is just a human projection. So much better then to smash all representations of the divine.
And yet this, of course, is exactly what Charlie Hebdo was doing. In the bluntest, rudest, most scatological and offensive of terms, Charlie Hebdo has been insisting that the images people worship are just human creations – bad and dangerous human creations. And in taking the piss out of such images, they actually exist in a tradition of religious iconoclasts going back as far as Abraham taking a hammer to his father’s statues. Both are attacks on representations of the divine. Which is why the terrorists, as well as being murderers, are theologically mistaken in thinking Charlie Hebdo is the enemy. For if God is fundamentally unrepresentable, then any representation of God is necessarily less than God and thus deserves to be fully and fearlessly attacked. And what better way of doing this than through satire, like scribbling a little moustache on a grand statue of God.
I would love to agree with this, but can’t quite. All iconoclasm is not alike. Reading Fraser’s essay I found myself remembering Mikhail Bakhtin’s great essay “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” in which he compares ancient and medieval parody with its modern equivalent.
Ancient parody was free of any nihilistic denial. It was not, after all, the heroes who were parodied, nor the Trojan War and its participants; what was parodied was only its epic heroization; not Hercules and his exploits but their tragic heroization. The genre itself, the style, the language are all put in cheerfully irreverent quotation marks, and they are perceived against a backdrop of contradictory reality that cannot be confined within their narrow frames. The direct and serious word was revealed, in all its limitations and insufficiency, only after it had become the laughing image of that word — but it was by no means discredited in the process.
By contrast, “in modern times the functions of parody are narrow and unproductive. Parody has grown sickly, its place in modem literature is insignificant. We live, write and speak today in a world of free and democratized language: the complex and multi-leveled hierarchy of discourses, forms, images, styles that used to permeate the entire system of official language and linguistic consciousness was swept away by the linguistic revolution of the Renaissance.” Parody for us is too often merely iconoclastic, breaking images out of juvenile delight in breaking, not out of commitment to a reality too heteroglot (Bakhtin’s term) to fit within the confines of standardized religious practices. I think Charlie Hebdo is juvenile in this way.
But feel free agree with that judgment or not — it’s not germane. As I said, the truly vital question here is not whether the magazine’s satire is worthwhile. The truly vital question is how badly — if at all — we want to live in a society where people who make such magazines can live without fear of losing their lives.