Read “The Case against #JeSuisCharlie” by Mary Newman
Descriptions of Charlie Hebdo that have appeared in the media during the last few days usually have cast the left-wing French satirical weekly as “provocative” and “irreverent.” But these vague adjectives tend toward understatement. Consider, for instance, the cover of the November 7, 2012 edition, featuring a cartoon illustration of Christianity’s foundational trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In the depiction of cartoonist Renald “Luz” Luzier (who survived the attack on Charlie Hebdo because he was late for work that day), the Father and Son are having anal sex (with the naked Son mounting the Father, notwithstanding any disability caused by stigmata), while the Son himself is being penetrated by a sharp-angled object marked as le saint esprit (Holy Spirit). Both deities have been rendered hysterically wild-eyed by the throes of passion (though I hasten to add that this is how Charlie Hebdo’s illustrators seem to draw everyone they regard as somewhat unhinged, including ultra-orthodox Jews, jihadis and, of course, the prophet Muhammad).
Which is to say, the artists who ran Charlie Hebdo—and those who still run it—are not Muslim-haters. They are haters and mockers of everything they regard as religious superstition, including the mythologized prophets who create these superstitions. So please don’t call them “Islamophobes.” If you insist on using the politically correct -phobia construction, then call them theophobes. They are essentially the French version of the North American leftists who incessantly mock evangelicals for their snake-handling and sacred oils and glossolalia—except that, unlike many anti-Christian types, they have the courage to extend their principles to the more protected categories of Jews and Muslims.
But even if we were to concede my Walrus colleague Mary Newman’s argument that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are feeding Islamophobic currents in French society, this in no way should undercut our support for their exercise of free speech. In a truly free society, everyone gets a say, even if that say casts God and Jesus—or Muhammad and a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist—as gay lovers.
Trashing another person’s religion isn’t a radical extrapolation of our right to free expression. Just the opposite: the right to attack religious beliefs forms the very bedrock of the Western liberal tradition in general, and free speech in particular.
In the United States, for instance, one of the most important First Amendment cases in the nation’s history involved a Jehovah’s Witness minister named Newton Cantwell who went around Roman Catholic areas of New Haven, Connecticut playing a phonograph record that described papists as instruments of Satan. I read Cantwell twenty years ago, when I was still in law school. But I reread it this week because Newton Cantwell and his two sons Jesse and Russell (also ordained Jehovah’s Witness ministers) were essentially the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists of 1930s-era New Haven—unrepentant, anti-social shit-disturbers who didn’t care a whit what other people regarded as sacred or holy. And may God bless them for that. Without unrepentant, anti-social shit-disturbers, our free speech doctrines would not exist, since no one needs special licence to mumble the platitudes (“religion of peace,” etc.) that everyone else is mumbling.
“The hearers were in fact highly offended,” Justice Owen Roberts wrote in his unanimous 1940 opinion:
One of them said he felt like hitting Cantwell and the other that he was tempted to throw Cantwell off the street. The one who testified he felt like hitting Cantwell said, in answer to the question, “Did you do anything else or have any other reaction? ” “No, sir, because he said he would take the Victrola and he went.” The other witness testified that he told Cantwell he had better get off the street before something happened to him and that was the end of the matter as Cantwell picked up his books and walked up the street.
I love that paragraph, because of the perfect capsule way it describes the Western free speech social contract. At the heart of this contract (which, sadly, is not respected in any Muslim nation) is the understanding that people are allowed to say horrible, vile things about the beliefs that the majority of people in a community hold dear and sacred. You can ask these people to get off your property, and you can say vile things in response. But you can’t censor them, or hit them, or massacre them in their offices.
Seventy-five years ago, I like to think, I would have gone around New Haven with a pin that says I Am Newton Cantwell. In 2015, it’s a Twitter hashtag that proclaims, proudly, #JeSuisCharlie.