Monday, January 26, 2015

Revering the irreverent

In an article called "Satire Lives," Adam Gopnick writes this in the New Yorker:

The staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, massacred in an act that shocked the world last week, were not the gentle daily satirists of American editorial cartooning. Nor were they anything like the ironic observers and comedians of manners most often to be found in our own beloved stable here at The New Yorker. (Though, to be sure, the covers of this magazine have startled a few readers and started a few fights.) They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy. There are satirical magazines and “name” cartoonists in London and other European capitals, particularly Brussels, but they tend to be artier in touch and more media-centric in concern. Charlie Hebdo was—will be again, let us hope—a satirical journal of a kind these days found in France almost alone. Not at all meta or ironic, like The Onion, or a place for political gossip, like the Paris weekly Le Canard Enchaîné or London’s Private Eye, it kept alive the nineteenth-century style of direct, high-spirited, and extremely outrageous caricature . . . .

For those who recall Charlie Hebdo as it really, rankly was, the act of turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety—making them martyrs, misunderstood messengers of the right to free expression—seems to risk betraying their memory. Wolinski, Cabu, Honoré: like soccer players in Brazil, each was known in France by a single name. A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn’t just mock those men’s politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances. It is wonderful to see Pope Francis condemning the horror, but also worth remembering that magazine’s special Christmas issue, titled “The True Story of Baby Jesus,” whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child. (Did the Pope see it?)
So Charlie Hebdo was nothing like the Onion, eh? Did the New Yorker writer see the Onion's article "No One Murdered Because Of This Image" — with an illustration showing several religious figures, including Jesus, in an orgy, with genitals and breasts on display?

The New Yorker article goes on:
[Charlie Hebdo] was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it—offensive to everybody, equally. . . . The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what its cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility. . . .

“Nothing Sacred” was the motto on the banner of the cartoonists who died, and who were under what turned out to be the tragic illusion that the Republic could protect them from the wrath of faith. “Nothing Sacred”: we forget at our ease, sometimes, and in the pleasure of shared laughter, just how noble and hard-won this motto can be.
While it may be ironic to imbue Charlie Hebdo with too much nobility or piety — attitudes that would seem to be the opposite of what the publication stands for — I actually think it's important to revere the irreverent. We've certainly been doing that with the Marx Brothers for 80 years, for instance. It's a strength, not a weakness, for a society to be able to not take itself too seriously.

Now, I don't find Charlie Hebdo particularly funny (what little I've seen of it), and maybe they haven't always exercised the best judgment about how to walk the fine line humorists often need to walk between being outrageously funny and causing pointless outrage. But there's no way to make sure that all comedians always show the most sensitive judgment; by their very nature, they're sometimes going to slip up and land on the wrong side of the line. This will occasionally cause offense. But that's the price of living in a world with humor and satire — which serve a vital role in puncturing pretense, deflating pomposity, giving us permission to laugh at authority figures.

Humorists are like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," who points out what everyone else is thinking but no one else has the nerve to say: the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. And if anything in the world is ripe for this kind of treatment, it's religion!

Something fundamental about the enemy has been revealed by its decision to carry out summary mass executions, and to arrogate worldwide jurisdiction in doing so . . . over cartoons. The Charlie Hebdo killings, the Danish cartoon killings, and the North Korea/The Interview incident have made clear that we need to send a serious message to the world about the freedom to be unserious — as Tina Fey put it, "the right to make dumb jokes."