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Charlie Hebdo, The Licensed Anarchist Clowns Of French Society


It's been just about a year since two terrorists, two brothers, stormed into the editorial meeting of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine. They killed 12 men and women, including a police officer and set off three days of terror throughout France, including the killing of four people in a kosher market. In the wake of the deaths of the satirists, Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie, became a slogan of solidarity for free expression around the world. Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo - known as Charb - had just completed an open letter, which has now been published as a posthumous manifesto - "Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, And The True Enemies Of Free Expression." The book's forward is by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, a famous chronicler of Paris. And he joins us from New York. Thanks so much being with us.

ADAM GOPNIK: Glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: You say when you first read Charlie Hebdo in the 1970s it just wasn't to your taste.

GOPNIK: No. I was a kid and it was kind of scabrous, and it wasn't the sacrilege that bothered me so much as the obscenity that challenged a 14-year-old American. But over the years, I came to have a keen appreciation of Charlie Hebdo and what it did. That was partly, Scott, because I became a pedant of the form. I did my graduate work in art history and particularly in the history of French satirical cartooning. And that made me aware of what a rich and resilient tradition this seemingly scabrous sacrilegious magazine still represented in French life.

SIMON: Maybe we should explain for Americans who perhaps only heard of the magazine when these terrible killings occurred...


SIMON: Charlie Hebdo was and is not The Onion or "The Daily Show." This is a different kind of satire. Might I put it this way - less politically correct.

GOPNIK: Infinitely less politically correct but also far more omnivorous. Charlie Hebdo mocked everyone. They mocked the left. They mocked the right. They mocked, above all, the extreme right, the extreme right of Le Pen's. If anything could identify their politics, they were kinds of anarchists. They had contempt for all authority and for anyone with pretenses to authority. They mocked rabbis and priests and presidents and imams and the prophets. So it was a kind of way in a very, as you know, Scott, in a society that in many ways is extremely formal and uptight as France can be, as official France can be. These were the licensed anarchist clowns of the society. And everyone understood, as people had understood for hundreds of years, knowing that Rabelaisian tradition of French satire, they knew how to read it. And they understood the kind of release from piety that it represented every week.

SIMON: Let me ask you to do a reading, if we can, from the Charb. It's a section that seems to be - seems to have the working title "God Is Big Enough To Take Care Of Himself."

GOPNIK: That's right. And Charb writes (reading) frankly, if God exists and is as powerful as his minions claims, we infidels, unbelievers, lay folk, atheists, anti-theists, freethinkers and apostates are in deep [expletive]. We are irremediably damned to the fires of hell, which raises the question why do believers resort to human justice to punish us when divine justice would do the trick far more severely than any judge? Exactly who is this God character who is said to be all-powerful yet needs to hire lawyers to take us to court? Isn't he miffed when someone he had always considered to be a true follower turns to the legal system rather than to prayer? Why would the faithful risk making God look ridiculous by losing a trial on Earth when he is certain to win every trial in heaven?

SIMON: Thank you. Adam Gopnik reading the words of Charb in "Open Letter" from posthumous manifesto by the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo. I take Charb's point, but at some point has Charlie Hebdo been trying to have it both ways because some of what they do is not funny if it weren't for the fact that some people consider it blasphemous?

GOPNIK: Sure. And we can say that about a lot of satirists. You know, I - a good analogy in lots of ways is "South Park" - the hugely popular American cartoon show - and the things that the "South Park" creators have created, like "The Book Of Mormon," the Broadway musical. If I were a devout Mormon, I would be offended by a lot of things that go on in "The Book Of Mormon," right? It mocks mercilessly the pretensions to truth of Mormonism and the pretensions to virtue of Mormon missionaries. But we understand because it's the environment we grew up in that the animus towards individual Mormons is really quite small in the work of the "South Park" people. The animus towards what they see as the absurdities of Mormon theology is large, but the Mormons themselves are regarded as, at worst, kind of innocents in the whole game.

Now, you can't prevent someone who takes their Mormonism very seriously from being offended by "The Book Of Mormon," and you can't prevent someone who takes their Islam very seriously from being offended by some of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. But when we ask what are the intentions of the creators, is it to cause harm to individual Mormons or Muslims or is it to mock authority to be sacrilegious, I think the answer's very clear.

SIMON: The Committee to Protect Journalists said this week that 69 journalists around the world were murdered this year doing their jobs, 28 of them by Islamic militants. Have journalists become targets?

GOPNIK: Oh, I don't think there's any question journalists have become targets, but then I think that - that anyone who tries to practice liberty becomes a target of fanatics. And it's not Islamic fanatics alone, though it certainly includes Islamic fanatics. We've had mass shootings in the United States in the part of violent antiabortion protesters, in the part of violent pro-ISIS militants. The trick and the trap and the horror is not faith, Scott. I don't think the trap and the horror is fanaticism. And fanaticism comes in as many flavors as there are human beings. And I think the worst thing we can do is to concede to fanaticism its devotion, say. Well, you have to understand, these people are really fanatics, so we should back down from them. I think if journalists start doing that then they won't be practicing journalism. If satirists start doing that then they won't be practicing satire.

SIMON: Adam Gopnik - he's written the forward to Charb's "Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, And The True Enemies Of Free Expression." Thanks so much for being with us.

GOPNIK: It was a pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.