mercredi, janvier 07, 2015

Pourquoi je ne suis pas Charlie - and why you might not be either

Like many of you,  I awoke to horror on Wednesday.

If you haven't been in a newspaper office, it's a remarkably nondescript place.  Cubicles, perhaps. Ranks of computers.  Desks that are often piled high with papers. Neatness in a journalist may be seen as a sign of a disordered mind - or a lack of useful sources.

 The quiet of a library where the librarian sometimes allows visitors to talk in a loud whisper.

Even a media outlet that produced raucous, edgy and often frankly offensive content like Charlie Hebdo probably was a rather ordinary venue, peopled with provocative caricaturists who stepped on as many sensitive toes as they could find, writers, and support staff.

Until today.

It still is almost impossible to take in the idea that a few bursts of gunfire robbed the world of some of its best cartoonists.

Terrifyingly, the men who massacred the magazine staff in cold blood were apparently French nationals, homegrown Islamic extremists.

You might not approve of everything featured in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. Odds are that something would rub you the wrong way, or even infuriate you.

But until today, those who us who grew up with the ideal of free speech as intuitive a belief as faith in language itself rested secure (relatively) that they were free to produce and disseminate it.

Relatively, I say - because it had been clear for a while that the newspaper, firebombed once before, was a target. Stephane Charbonnier, the editor who lost his life today with eleven others, already was under police protection, it is being reported.

And that, in part, is why "Je suis Charlie" though an admirable affirmation of solidarity, doesn't quite ring true.

The fact is that these men and women probably knew every day when they came into work that their lives might be in danger. That took bravery, commitment and principle.

The rise of  the anti-Islamist, anti-immigration right wing,  coupled with an increase in radicalized native-born and immigrant Muslims, is creating a tinderbox in Europe.

Though God knows America has its racial, ethnic and religious problems, they are to some extent ameliorated by the vastness of our country,  the fact that we have a legal, longstanding but imperfect commitment to tolerance, and our heritage as a nation of immigrants.

Am I Charlie? I doubt it.  As much as it hurts to confess it, I'm just not that brave.

It's all too easy to proclaim ourselves in solidarity with those who have already made the ultimate sacrifice for free speech as we sit in our cozy homes behind a monitor and feel the urge to do something, say something, say anything.

But when the rubber meets the road, I question how many of us would defend to the death someone's right to free speech.  After all, this is a nation where huge swathes of citizens don't even bother to vote.

The Parisians still in shock over bloodshed in their midst who held defiant vigil against barbarism today? They might with some justice say "Je suis Charlie."

A dear friend and his colleagues in a newspaper office in Paris, possibly wondering if they might be next? Perhaps.

The cartoonists who spoke with their pens today against terrorism, who will not be intimidated? They are also potential Charlies.

But me? Or you? Think twice before you hashtag yourself.

There may come a time when indeed we will be called upon to raise our hand when someone calls our name and say, yes, I am Charlie.

But unless we are willing to put our principles front and center when someone offends Christians Jews or other groups we hold sacred, until we are willing and able to speak out on behalf of that which outrages our own sensibilities because we believe so profoundly in free speech, until that moment comes when we are challenged to put up or shut up?

Non, I say sadly, je ne suis pas Charlie.


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