In 1979, I happened to run across Georges Bernier, the creator of the bitingly satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The motto was “Bête et Méchant,” which translates roughly as “stupid and nasty.” It had started in 1969 as Hara Kiri, but had only lasted a year before it was closed on orders from Charles de Gaulle, a man whose sense of humor failed to keep up with his sense of grandeur. Hara Kiri wasn’t the only bit of satire to antagonize the Grand Charles. After a ceramicist fashioned a coffee mug with de Gaulle’s famously huge nose as a handle, Charles Magnus managed to get a law passed that banned images ridiculing the president. As for Hara Kiri, the magazine’s impish creators simply re-launched their opus, changing its name to “Charlie Hebdo.”
The reason for my meeting with Georges Bernier was the magazine’s 20th anniversary celebration at the popular Club 78 on Paris’ Champs Elysées. Bernier decided to crown two decades of editorial mischief by auctioning off an exact copy of the throne that Central Africa’s self-styled emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, had commissioned for his coronation, a lavish celebration that had cost the impoverished country an estimated $20 million at a time when much of the population faced starvation. The fact that Bokassa had been accused of cannibalism and of allegedly keeping body parts of former cabinet members in his refrigerator for midnight snacks, only made the festivities, which lasted until 6 a.m., more outrageous. The real reason for recalling Bokassa I’s exuberant absurdity, however, was the involvement of various French politicians. Giscard d’Estaing as France’s finance minister had allegedly accepted gifts of diamonds from the would be emperor and he had also accepted invitations to shoot wildlife on Bokassa’s personal African game preserve. Giscard was not the only one to be tainted, a motley assortment of western diplomats had allowed themselves to be photographed while nervously participating in the emperor’s megalomaniacal charade. The promise of lucrative contracts obliged, and Bernier was not going to let anyone forget the implicit hypocrisy of that moment. At a brief interlude in the festivities on the Champs Elysées, I asked Bernier about Charlie Hebdo’s journalistic philosophy. “I want to vomit on the sidewalk,” he said,”and then stick your face in it.” I bought a copy of the magazine, and, indeed, on the back page was a glossy vividly colored photo of a plate of food from a typically unsavory Parisian fast food chain. Dead flies were floating on a runny, undercooked, soft-boiled egg. I had to control an urge to wretch.
While the political satire of the equally satirical Canard Enchainé managed to titillate not only the sophisticated Parisian public, but also much of the French government, Charlie Hebdo appealed to an audience that was much smaller, more extreme and hard core. The Canard proved wildly successful—so much so that it could afford to pay lawyers to fend off the hundreds of libel suits that inevitably followed its salacious disclosures. In contrast, Charlie Hebdo regularly stepped over the boundary that separates humor from being simply insulting. The magazine constantly flirted with bankruptcy. It folded in 1981, only to be resurrected by Bernier and friends in 1992. Bernier died of natural causes in 2005. Charlie Hebdo’s latest editor, Stéphan Charbonnier, aka Charb, was not so lucky.
The bloody and completely senseless massacre on Wednesday, January 7, has led to a worldwide expression of solidarity, with signs flashing, “Je suis Charlie—I am Charlie.” The suggestion is heart warming, but an expression of genuine sympathy does not exactly mean that we are all the same as the impish prankster who actually published the magazine, or drew cartoons capturing wildly imagined fantasies about the various sexual positions of the Prophet. In short, we all approve free speech. Approving the giving of offense may be a different matter.
What ever one feels about that, it is clear that the brutal attack has drawn a line that clearly defines where we stand philosophically. In a sense, the murderers created their own Rubicon, and they have taken the world of Islamic extremism with them. The video, in which a wounded policeman raises his hands to shield his face, and is gunned down mercilessly, at point blank range, leaves no doubt about where the police, and indeed, justice in general, are likely to stand on this one.
But the mass murder also marks an equally important change in how we perceive the world around us. When Bernier first created his magazine, France was a self-contained entity in which you could say pretty much what you wanted–no matter how outrageous–without having to fear a violent reprisal. People might be offended, but except in a few unusual cases, no one was going to shoot you for saying it. In the intervening decades, the world has globalized. To a certain extent, France has lost control of its own borders, and a new generation plays by different rules. It is a point that right-wing reactionaries like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen are only too anxious to use for their political advantage. But the fact is that the extreme right is no more capable of turning back the clock than anyone else. In their impotence, they are likely to wreak overheated vengeance on innocent civilians who have no connection to the mayhem that has just taken place. As Michel Houellebecq points out in his latest book, Submission, the rules of the game have changed as well as the actors who call the shots. Freedom of expression is no less important in this new world, but the stakes have been raised and it now requires real courage, not just bravado, to say what you really think. The civilized West, in short, is beginning to learn what most of the rest of the world has realized for a long time.
The situation calls for a sense of balance and resolve not to forget the civilized values that have been established over centuries of bloodshed. The first question to ask in any conflict is what your antagonist is really after. What do extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula really want? A quick guess is that they are playing the card of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: they hope to ignite hatred and an angry, thoughtless reaction, in short, a sudden thirst for blood that will start the world on the same kind of downward spiral of revenge and violence that characterized the Middle East for most of the 20th century. The twisted political leaders of the various extremist factions that are rampaging around the Middle East at the moment may need to be brought under control or simply eliminated, but that needs to be done in a way that is itself under control. Once the immediate threat has been dealt with, the real problem must be faced: that is the inequality and social neglect that creates a reservoir of alienated and hopeless individuals who do the bidding of power-hungry demagogues. If we really want peace, we might recall a truth that Boris Pasternak pointed to in Dr. Zhivago : Men who are happy do not go to war.
By William Dowell
First published on The Essential Edge, the lake Geneva review of global writing.