Thursday, January 8, 2015


Voltaire never said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

He said, "What a fuss about an omelette!"

I found the second quote while looking for the first, and like it much better for expressing my disgust over the execution of cartoonists and editors and their police protectors at Charlie Hebdo Wednesday in Paris.

It sounds insensitive. It is, I hope you'll see, wildly appropriate.

Voltaire was defending, if a bit backhandedly, a contemporary's book, De l'esprit, in 1758. The French Parliament ordered Claude Adrien Helvétius' book burned, and him exiled from Paris, after the French ruling class and church hierarchy decided they were insulted. Man can improve himself, and become equal to his peers through education? Religion is largely ineffectual?? Indeed!

Voltaire didn't like Helvétius or his book, but supported its publication, the flowering of ideas, and found the fallout excessive, so much omelet fussing.

A Voltaire biographer 150 years later repackaged the philosopher's omelet remark into the quote we have stuck in Voltaire's throat ever since, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Until the sad and vicious and cowardly act Wednesday, I didn't know Charlie Hebdo from Charlie Brown, the comics character for whom the satirical weekly reportedly is named ("hebdo" being French slang for "weekly"). That's a sad admission from someone who frequently professes love for editorial cartooning and the power it possesses.

I have learned so much since.

Charlie Hebdo is an equal-opportunity offender, its official slogan translating to "dumb and nasty." U.S. cartoonists and satirists have nothing on the satire of Charlie Hebdo or the rest of the world, for that matter, where the risks of offense are high and real and immediate.

Cartoonists and journalists are threatened, injured and killed throughout the world; we pay attention to this incident, I'm afraid, for its brazenness and body count.

It's ironic that in the United States, with our relative freedom of expression (I said relative: you can name me many, many instances of censorship and restraint in my country), we have nothing that approaches Charlie Hebdo for raw and unrelenting provocation.

Why? I wonder. Being free(r), are we more tolerant, or just more complacent? Do we have no more big ideas to skewer, and instead tilt at the niggling nuances of wrongs in a democratic society? Do we censor ourselves as a people? Do we bow to power, to money?

Cartoonists and reporters and journalists in the United States face opposition to their work, of course, though vary rarely has it resulted in death — Denver radio host Alan Berg was murdered by members of a white nationalist group in 1984. Who else?

Two cartoonists — Jack Ohman of The Sacramento Bee and Nick Anderson of The Houston Chronicle — today described the death threats they have received over the years for their work. Typically, though, opponents' weapon of choice against published opinion is an angry call or letter, typically containing a demand that the offending commentator be fired. Sometimes those offended protest or boycott. That's how it should be: I don't like your idea, and I get to say so.

Would a journal the stature of Charlie Hebdo in the United States publish cartoons depicting Muhammad, Islam's prophet, just for the sake of doing so?

Or would we in the U.S. just shrug at a Charlie Hebdo, write our letters, make our calls, demand firing, and move on?

Taking Charlie Hebdo's cartoons together, I infer that its overarching aim is that no idea is sacrosanct, every viewpoint is open to criticism and lampoon. Its cartoonists persevere on this point, pushing it purposefully in the face of death — to the point of death.

Would we? Would I? Am I Charlie?

I agree with The Sacramento Bee editorial today:
Sometimes, more mainstream journalists and artists find themselves aligned with practitioners who walk beyond the bounds of good taste and civility. Opinion journalists are out on the end of a very long branch. The far twigs of that branch are inhabited by publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and far less secure.
Or, as Pat Oliphant commented in 1988, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Larry Flynt and Hustler Magazine's satire of televangelist Jerry Falwell:
Oliphant's version of Voltaire, anthologized in "Nothing Basically Wrong."
Oliphant's additional commentary: "A landmark decision by the Supreme Court.
If Falwell had prevailed, this book would have ended on the previous page."
Though literally surrounded by pens and pencils and ink — though passionate about cartooning — I do not see myself willing or able to carry a point as boldly as Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists. But I honor and appreciate that they do, because they extend the boundaries of freedom and keep light on the truth, where you and I can roam, arms flung wide.

And I honor those who will pick up the pen for editor/cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu), and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous), some of France's most famous cartoonists killed in Wednesday's attack.

"The real question," said diplomatic editor Julian Borger of The Guardian, "is whether anyone is going to pick up the baton, and being as brave and being as in your face as Charlie Hebdo. That is no small challenge. It is a lethal challenge."

Someone — many someones — must pick it up and keep going, keep expressing, for all of us. And we must enable them, we must help them hold the pen. We must be Charlie.

"We have avenged Muhammad!" the gunmen reportedly shouted. "We have killed Charlie Hebdo!"

But of course they didn't. Instead and instantly, they scattered its spores around the world. Acting on their bizarre and perverted interpretation of religion — Think as I, or die! — they accomplished the opposite of their goal. Charlie Hebdo cartoons zoom now around the world; controversial parodies of Muhammad proliferate.

May the spores of free expression flourish in our good soil.
Did you think to kill me? There's no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill.
There's only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.

— Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

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