Au nom du Père et du Fils et du Saint-Esprit, ainsi soit il. That is how almost every meal of my childhood began. My mom, who studied French in college, led us in the sign of the cross in French before every meal. That was followed by “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” And then we ate.
When I was little it sounded like, “O nomdupair, aydufeece, aydoosunesspree, ahntsy swateeo.” I was not inclined to press Mom for further information; the food was getting cold.
Despite (or perhaps because of) Mom’s best intentions, the whole religion thing did not stick with me. But an admiration of French culture did. Soon, I learned more from reliably horny French TV characters like Pepe Le Pew and Louis LeBeau. And even those of us who never learned to speak French know far more vocab than we probably realize, at least according to the communiqué in my attaché about bringing soufflé to the coup d’état. Even our city is named for Louis XVI, who eventually lost his head to the guillotine.
But now we’ve all learned another French expression: je suis Charlie.
I’ve read many opinion pieces written by pundits explaining why they are not Charlie and I respect their feelings. To some, it feels hypocritical to defend Charlie Hebdo if one would not personally espouse the same views. To others, the images are just in bad taste. And some say it’s foolish to intentionally provoke violent madmen with images that insult their prophet. There is also the very real concern that Charlie Hebdo risks whipping anti-immigration zealots into a violent frenzy.
One French writer told the New York Times that French people feel “homesick at home.” That sounds like someone who is reaching for a convenient political argument to mask his prejudices.
And yet, the stress of rapid cultural shifts feels familiar. I feel homesick at home when I hear about yet another school shooting. I feel it when formerly great media outlets report their stories by summing up the previous day’s tweets. I feel it when, like all the other zombies, I spend time with my phone instead of the people around me. I feel it when I’m reminded that somebody else owns my “data.” I expect change – love it, in fact – but it does sometimes come at a high cost.
But here is why je suis Charlie.
Freedom of expression has been painfully perfect for too long to start caving now. In order to allow all voices to be heard we’ve bravely endured The KKK, 2 Live Crew, Mr. Hankey, the Westboro Baptist Church, AM hate radio, Grand Theft Auto, the Ken Starr Report, as well as blatant falsehoods like “Better Ingredients Better Pizza” and most of the Fox News oeuvre. It’s practically impossible for young people to grow up today without hearing the words “four-hour erection.” It’s a challenge to watch TV for any length of time without seeing someone murdered or bludgeoned. To tap Google or Facebook is to risk seeing presidents, popes and pop stars Photoshopped doing pervy things.
Freedom can be icky. You must expect to have your senses assaulted and you must gather the fortitude to look away. I personally find jokes about rape and suicide offensive but I defend others’ right to tell them. To murder an artist over a line drawing is the act of a coward – one who is being manipulated by an unseen puppet master.
In Time magazine, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote this about the Paris attacks: “Ironically, terrorism is actually an act against the very religion they claim to believe in. It’s an acknowledgement that the religion and its teachings aren’t enough to convince people to follow it. Any religion that requires coercion is not about the community, but about the leaders wanting power.”
To censor Charlie Hebdo is to throw a brush-back pitch at Jon Stewart, Louis CK, Family Guy, South Park, Girls, and every other satirist you hold dear. To give religion a free pass is to also to quash political and cultural dissent. The world is infinitely richer because of satire. Je suis Voltaire, je suis Twain, je suis Vonnegut.
So yes, I am Charlie. Somewhere between Hallmark and Hebdo there might be a line that tasteful writers and artists should not cross. But we shouldn’t let superstitious madmen with automatic rifles dictate where that line is.