Freedom of Expression

The Attack on Charlie Hebdo: a pathetic display of weakness

Guest post by JS Rafaeli

Here are three events that occurred last week: the Kepler Space Telescope discovered its 1,000th new planet – the most Earth-like yet found; new technology allowed us to image the developing brains of unborn children; and 12 people were murdered at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and four others were murdered at a kosher supermarket in Paris.

The first two of these events were intended to increase the store of human knowledge, progress and happiness; the third was explicitly designed to retard it. The first two will succeed in their mission; the third will fail, despite the anguish it engenders on the way.

During the final days of World War II, the amphetamine-addled Adolf Hitler, cowering in his bunker, predicted that the “decadent, feeble” Western Democracies would fall before the rigid communism of the USSR. He got it exactly wrong. It was an identical delusion inspired the vicious cowardly idiots who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

What both the terrorists in Paris and the génocidaire in Berlin got wrong is that in time, the open society will triumph over the closed society. All the unifying certitudes of Bolshevism disintegrated before the whirling contradictions of democracy; the 1,000-year dominion of the Catholic Church in Europe crumbled with the invention of the printing press; and the same fate awaits every oppressive mullah, apparatchik and tin-pot dictator of our own era.

Crucially, what happened in France was not even really about religion; that’s window dressing. This is about the confrontation between the open society and the closed – between those who never grew out of a need for one grand answer to all life’s questions, and those who say with Karl Popper, “A theory that explains everything, explains nothing”.

The much-missed Christopher Hitchens drew the distinction another way, between the “literal” and the “ironic” mind: “Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation, and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need”.

This vision of the ironic mind, with all its potential for enlightenment, humour, compassion and empathy has an acute pang when humourists have been slaughtered. It is a tragedy whenever a journalist is murdered or killed in the line of duty covering a war zone. But, somehow there is a different kind of sting in the idea of a group of satirists brutally attacked without warning in their own offices. A murdered clown is no joke.

The greatest enemy, and the greatest fear, of any tyrant is a sense of humor. The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky (perhaps jokingly) called for the erection of a monument to the political joke, crediting the quips of his fellow prisoners rather than the reams of political essays with keeping the flame of resistance alive. Humour is too wild and mercurial to conform to political stricture, demanding a flexibility of mind that is anathema to dictatorships of every hue. This rings true from Aristophanes’ disputes with Cleon in Ancient Athens, to Kim Jong Un’s concern with the banal movie comedies of Seth Rogen.

It is also true of the dictatorship of what is called “good taste”. This is why all those who attempt to smudge or shift the blame for these attacks onto Charlie Hebdo itself must be utterly resisted. They claim Charlie Hebdo pushed the boundaries of taste. Good. Someone needs to. They say it was crude, offensive, provocative, snotty. Good. All these qualities have a necessary place in our ongoing conversation.

In all honesty, as satire I never thought the magazine was all that great. It’s certainly no Private Eye or even South Park. But it was good to know it was there – to know that these things can be, and are being, said. I will be taking out an annual subscription to Charlie Hebdo, the first subscription I have ever paid for.

But there is one piece of heart that partisans of the ironic mind can take from last week’s horror. We are, ultimately, on the winning side.

It is a playground cliché that the child who throws the punch has lost the argument. The grubby merchants of jihad like to portray their spasmodic violence as acts of strength. They aren’t. What we witnessed in Paris was the equivalent of an impotent man who beats a woman out of rage at his own sexual inadequacy.

As disparate as they may seem, the Kepler Space Telescope and Charlie Hebdo spring from the same fertile, enlightened, questioning mind. Those who murdered the cartoonists are drawn from the same barren nullity as totalitarian fascism and communism. And it is to that same nullity that they shall return. The sooner the better.

Je suis Charlie.

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