Michael Katims is a screenwriter and translator.
Sunday morning I went to the supermarket around the corner from my apartment in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, where I have lived for the past 18 years. Near the turnstiles at the entrance, and at every checkout register, were signs saying “JE SUIS CHARLIE”. Printed in white over black on standard letter-size printer paper with a crappy inkjet printer like the one I have in my office, the signs must have used up practically a whole cartridge of black.
On line, I ran into a neighbor. A speech therapist who lives in my building, Laurence is someone I have known and liked for a long time. She said she thought the signs were kind of nice – it shows that the supermarket manager has some humanity. Knowing how poorly the cashiers at this supermarket are often treated, I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Still, I never doubted that the manager of my local supermarket was capable of genuine human emotion, even a social consciousness, and explaining my discomfort at seeing those signs would take longer than the wait time at the checkout counter and – who knows? – I might just wind up getting into an uncomfortable argument with a neighbor I really like. Instead, we changed the subject. (And had a nice teasing argument about what each of us had in the grocery basket. How biodegradable, local, healthy, tasty, inexpensive, recyclable each of our items was. Great fun.)
But that nagging feeling about the signs followed me home. Here it is in a nutshell: Although I have no evidence to support this, I have a sneaking suspicion the supermarket manager (or whoever took the initiative to print up the signs and scotch tape them all around) wasn’t really even thinking about Charlie Hebdo at all.
It isn’t only about the signs. It’s a feeling that has been growing since last Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Politicians like John Kerry and François Hollande have stepped gingerly around the actual content of the satirical newspaper and focused their statements on issues of “free speech” (as though the authors of the Droits de L’Homme or the first amendment to the U.S. constitution sought to protect speech against gangs of marauding religious fanatics rather than government repression and official censorship). Media of every stripe have joined the party, of course, never really speaking much about the actual newspaper and the particular satirists who died there.
The universality of the message dismisses the content of Charlie Hebdo with the famous line, often attributed to Voltaire but actually authored by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Clap, clap. Wipe your hands on your pant legs and it’s on to the next sound bite, the next spontaneous outpouring of grief, the next solemn vow never to give in to those who would threaten our free society with violence.
And it is, in many cases if not all, genuine grief and sincere solemnity. And I share it. I feel it. The more so because, in this particular instance, the terror strikes very close to home for me. Close enough that I myself was terrified.
The Charlie Hebdo offices where the attack took place are only a few blocks from my house. The bicycle lane visible in the amateur video, moments after a policeman was killed in the street outside, is a bicycle lane I use four or five times a week. I might have been pedaling by, right at that moment. When the police officer was shot in Montrouge she was less than a half mile from a subtitling lab where I often work. It’s also down the block from where my brother-in-law works and he had to wait a couple of hours before he could get into his office last Thursday morning. Before the Dammartin standoff on Friday, the Kouachi brothers reportedly drove very close to the house of a friend in mine in the northern suburbs. Finally, the kosher grocery store at the Porte de Vincennes is around the corner from the high school from which my daughter graduated last June. The daughter of a good friend was one of the students who were kept inside for the whole afternoon, while the neighborhood was cordoned off and authorities worked to free the hostages inside the grocery.
I heard rumors of other incidents which turned out to be false alerts. Some nut on the Métro suddenly shouting “I am Jihad!” Police clearing Trocadéro square after another non-event.
I told my daughters to stay home that evening, even though they had plans to go out. My only thought right then was, “Better safe than sorry.”
The gym where I work out is at the Place de la République, so I joined the more or less spontaneous demonstration last Wednesday night, then saw the media trucks set up there Thursday and Friday, heard the whir of their generators, saw the orange glow of their lights, noticed how the top of the media tents mirrored the top of the children’s merry-go-round (illustrating, it occurred to me, the variable meaning of the French word manège).
Saturday night, I tooled my Vélib over to the Charlie Hebdo offices and saw the bouquets of flowers left at the police barricades at the end of the street. More media tents. TV journalists, each doing a stand-up in another language, all wore the same grave expressions. A German with earbuds crouched on the pavement and talked to his laptop. There were people just like me, milling around, staring a little dumbstruck at the walls and windows of the non-descript building where the initial attack took place, not sure why they had come.
Yesterday, Sunday, January 11 was the apotheosis of the “Je Suis Charlie” moment, what some have dubbed the French 9/11, a sudden realization of core “democratic” values. Nearly four million people marched in France. I was one of them. Among the demonstrators, there was a real sense of unity. And wonder. And um, what-would-you-call-it… pride.
The thing is, the universality and sanctitude of the message is precisely the kind of thing that Charlie Hebdo mocked.
As surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz put it in an interview with Sud-Ouest, “It’s great that people support us, but it’s the opposite of what Charlie’s drawings are all about.”
One thing the members of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial desk agreed about was not to be unanimous and consensual. That’s why it’s been fun to read (and probably why it’s been fun to work on). Cabu and Wollinski didn’t have to agree with one another about everything – or even about most things – in order to support each other’s work and get the publication out every week. But it’s a reasonable guess that another thing they would have all agreed about is that making Charlie Hebdo into a symbol of free speech, turning the drama into an international rallying cry for core democratic values, is precisely the opposite of what that publication has always been about.
One of France’s largest national dailies, Libération, has reportedly made space available for the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo, who are planning a print run of one million for their January 14th issue. (It’s usual print run is 60,000.)
It remains to be seen if the editorial content will change, of course. But if it doesn’t, on the off chance that Charlie Hebdo has lost many of its key creative minds but not its soul, then they will be mercilessly blowing raspberries at many of the people demonstrating their support, especially the most powerful ones. Netanyahu, Hollande, Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy, Merkel, Cameron, Obama, Kerry, should all expect to be lampooned to the rafters and caught in their contradictions.
“The current symbolic cargo is what Charlie has always worked against,” says Luz. Charlie is about “destroying symbols, lifting taboos, and deconstructing fantasies.”
If they do that, then Hollande and the others will soon be clearing their throats and searching with desperate eyes for the exit from the “Je Suis Charlie” big tent. I bet my supermarket manager will quickly and quietly take down his “Je Suis Charlie” signs and feed them to the shredder.
And if Charlie Hebdo doesn’t live up to the culture Luz describes, then it is well and truly dead and the “Je Suis Charlie” movement is hollow, meaningless, anything and anyone but Charlie.