Paris encore debout

Michael Deibert on the boycott of the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo last spring.

I don’t think I had ever been ashamed to be a writer until that moment. It was a scandalous display born out of ignorance of the role of Charlie Hebdo, the function of satire, and the history of modern France as a whole. It was obvious from the nature of the letter that few, if any, of the signatories had probably ever read Charlie Hebdo before the attacks, and had instead formed their opinion on a handful of out-of-context cartoons culled from the publication’s 40 plus year history.

The authors seemed oblivious to the fact that satire’s function is to sting, not cause guffaws, and that by far the most frequent targets of the publication’s cartoonists — artists such as Jean Cabu, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier and Georges Wolinski (all slain in the attack) — were France’s rancid political elite and, especially, the right-wing Front National founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now run by his daughter, Marine. One of the cartoons most often used to demonstrate Charlie Hebdo’s supposed racism, that of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a women of Afro-Guyanese descent, as a monkey, was in fact mocking far-right attacks against her, not Taubira herself. [For her part, Taubira gave a moving eulogy at the funeral of Hebdo cartoonist Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac.] The signatories simply threw to one side the publication’s long history of attacking Catholicism, Judaism and, indeed, organized religion of any sort. They seemed unaware of the series of articles Charlie Hebdo’s slain economist, Bernard Maris, had written on the effects of austerity on Europe’s most vulnerable, especially in Greece, or that the magazine had spoken out in furious dissent against the 2008-2009 and 2014 Israeli assaults on Gaza.

But never mind all that, they knew better, the boycotters did. Or they were more hell-bent on displaying their Superior Righteousness to an admiring world.

As the French academic Olivier Tonneau wrote shortly after the attacks in response to the venomous social media slander against the paper’s slain staff, “if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.”

(Nor were the PEN signatories alone in libeling the dead. The U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote that Charlie Hebdo was “not just offensive but bigoted” and engaged in “a stream of mockery toward Muslims generally” and “the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims.”)

Now, he goes on, there’s a whole lot of misunderstanding of Europe and Paris and the Muslims and immigrants of Paris.

There has been a bizarre grief contest on social media suggesting, alternately, that if one mourns the dead in Paris and the attacks against the city, one could somehow not mourn recent terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Turkey, those dying in the civil war in Syria, or those being killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and that the media had “ignored” such stories, even though they all have received — and continue to receive — extensive coverage in every major paper in Europe and North America. Perhaps if people spent less time circulating fake Buddha and Bob Marley quotes they would have noticed.

A Brazilian friend of mine currently based in India (a country that knows a little something about religious-inspired terror) introduced me to the perfect term for both the critics of Charlie Hebdo and those whose mockery and critiques of the genuine pain of so many after the Paris attacks appeared to reveal nothing if not a collection of curdled souls: Catastrophe sommeliers.

After any major example of man’s inhumanity, religious fanaticism or simple tragedy, they would appear portentously at the world’s side, napkin draped over their arm to decide who, what, where and for how long it was proper to mourn, or whether one was allowed to mourn at all.

As if we need a sommelier to decide that for us.

Behind the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 died, an image has already been posted up of five people raising a glass of wine in mute salute under the words Paris encore debout (Paris is still standing). Charlie Hebdo’s cover after the attacks was a beret-wearing French caricature guzzling bubbly, which then pours out of copious bullet holes in the figure’s body, along with the words ils ont les armes, on les emmerde, on a le champagne (They’ve got the weapons, fuck ’em, we’ve got the champagne).

The spirit of Paris, of Charlie Hebdo and the spirit of those lives — so many of them so young — snatched away last week can never fully leave us. They will be with us as people drink and eat and laugh and flirt on the cafes along the Canal Saint Martin…

On les emmerde, on a le champagne – and the music and cartoons and jokes and a strong objection to murdering people.

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