I cannot say 'I am Charlie,' but 'Je suis Francais'

"The American River Ganges," Harper’s Weekly, September, 1871 by Thomas Nast.

In an early morning walk on Fifth Ave. across from Central Park I was caught at the French Embassy by an improvised shrine—a bundle of flower bouquets wrapped in cellophane to protect them from the 18-degree freeze, bunched around burning candles, as if this were a sidewalk altar, and a sign: “We Are Charlie.” I’ve seen displays like this in poor neighborhoods, memorials to young victims of accidents or gang murders, but not on Fifth Avenue. On Sunday, Jan. 11, 3.7 million people, including world leaders, marched through France—joined by others in 15 countries elsewhere—in pay tribute to 17 terror victims.

Suddenly the test of public reaction to the slaughter of journalists in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has become whether we are willing to identify ourselves with the victims. The police officer killed, Ahmed Berabet, of a North African immigrant family, has inspired another slogan, “I am Ahmed.”

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New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks headlined his contribution with “I’m Not Charlie Hebdo,” as if to separate himself from the mourners; but he also defends satirists who “expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should.” The lowest blow came from Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who first says the violent response to the insult “must be unequivocally condemned,” but goes on to be in “total agreement” with Muslim objections to Charlie Hebdo’s insults, adding that publisher Stephane Charbonnier “had he not been so narcissistic, may still be alive.” 

Meanwhile there is a quick tutorial on the role of the political cartoonist. Among many roles—to inspire, console, educate, amuse—they are supposed to sting, expose the corruption of those who abuse their power. And in a democracy the offended targets are supposed to brush it off if they are innocent and change their ways if they have been caught.

Donohue complains that cartoonists offend the church; but the church, particularly the hierarchy, has rolled with those punches for hundreds of years. The Wall Street Journal republished an old French cartoon depicting a skinny young priest evolving into a corpulent bishop. Moviegoers recall the satirical procession of overweight clergy in Fellini’s “Roma.” American history buffs know Thomas Nast’s 1871 depiction of crocodiles (bishops as Irish immigrants) paddling ashore with crocodile teeth protruding from their mitres. At least three cartoonists last week employed the “pen is mightier than the sword” motif: The New York Daily News’ Bill Bramhall, usually one of the more gross and vulgar, scores here: the terrorist, masked, loaded with a rocket launcher, two knives, an automatic rifle in his left hand and a bloody sword in his right, emerges from the left; from the right a single hand, reminiscent of God’s finger in Michelangelo’s creation of Adam, reaches out armed only with a pen. “Still mightier.”

When I was very young I drew comics, went to art school on Saturday mornings and was sent to meet a famous cartoonist, “Crawford,” at the Newark News. He examined my work and told me, “Don’t let anyone tell you that your proportions are off, that the head is too big or the arms too long.” He meant that exaggeration is the essence of the cartoonist’s impact, the artist has to “break the rules” to achieve the effect.

The New York Times declined to publish the Charlie Hebdo drawings that were most offensive, but on their website they showed a brief documentary of the Charlie staff at work, scribbling drawings of furious Arabs, posting them for examination, kidding around, not taking themselves seriously but serious about the work they loved.

I lived in France—Toulouse and Paris—as a student in 1953-54 and have kept alive my friendships there. So when I see those “I am Charlie” posters waved by crowds of thousands I am thrilled. Yes I know it’s all very complicated: that some say the French government is less supportive of free speech than it should be; that jihadism is an inchoate rage against modernity, that it “lacks the moral and philosophical framework that guided previous anti-imperialistic movements,” that it is a profound political problem caused to a great degree by fundamentalist ignorance, a lack of understanding of the true life and meaning of Muhammed and the Islamic religion (International New York Times, Jan 5). I regret that my own drawings don’t win me the right to say, “I am Charlie,” but from my love for my French family and friends, I marshal my compassion and my faith to say, “Je suis Francais.”

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