Charlie Hebdo was not Mocking Hurricane Harvey’s Victims

Charlie Hebdo didn’t mock Harvey’s victims, but rather President Trump – climate change denier and ambiguous condemner of ‘both sides’ after Charlottesville.

I want to play devil’s advocate and defend Charlie Hebdo and the cartoons they publish that seem to upset just about everybody. The fear of upsetting the wrong people should not be part of the daily life of a cartoonist – or a blogger for that matter. Cartoons are a particular form of art in which the world and those in it are deformed, caricatured, and offended, but there lingers a smell of truth once the offence has subsided. So, tough luck, World – this Charlie’s not for turning because he’s not even shaken by your offensive remarks.

The Kouachi brothers ran into the street shouting “Charlie is dead.” Today’s Charlie silencers are loose on the internet and in the White House, but Charlie is alive and well.

What does Charlie Hebdo stand for?

Many, I fear, do not know what the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo stands for and were probably unaware of its existence before the tragic events that took place at the journal’s office in January 2015. The worldwide solidarity that was shown towards Charlie Hebdo, was, of course, totally fitting. Provocative and sometimes distasteful cartoons do not justify mass murder. I ask myself, however, if most of the people who participated in this show of solidarity knew what Charlie Hebdo actually stands for.

Joe Walsh did try to redeem himself by tweeting, “Only an idiot would think I wasn’t aware of the attacks. My point is Hebdo has gone soft on Islam since the attack”. He got it wrong even the second time around, so for his benefit (and that of a few others), this is what Charlie Hebdo actually stands for:

Charlie Hebdo has no need of God, nor any need of Wall Street. Charlie doesn’t need two cars and three cellphones to be happy.

To be happy, Charlie Hebdo draws, writes, interviews, ponders and laughs at everything on this earth which is ridiculous, giggles at all that is absurd or preposterous in life. Which is to say – very nearly everything. 

Because life is so awfully short that it would be a pity to spend it whining in dismay instead of laughing it up a storm.

An irresponsible newspaper?

If you look under the title “Charlie Hebdo” you will read the two words “journal irresponsable,” which, in French, qualify Charlie Hebdo as an irresponsible newspaper. Charlie Hebdo is indeed irresponsible, but only for overestimating people’s capacity to understand what it is trying to say through its provocative and very direct cartoons, which are invariably taken out of context. The editorial stance of the paper is quite the opposite to what is generally perceived. In any case, I would rather read a satirical paper with a basic sense of humour (yes, I do laugh at their humour) that provokes reactions, than a bunch of undercover hungry paparazzi running after a helpless princess, or a mainstream newspaper headlining that three judges are “enemies of the people”. This is not because I have a warped sense of humour, but because I know what Charlie Hebdo is saying through its headline-grabbing front-page cartoons. Charlie Hebdo’s editorial stance is occulted by the sheer provocation of the journal’s cartoons, which have to be understood in the prevailing context at the time of their publication.

Charlie Hebdo is indeed irresponsible, but only for overestimating people’s capacity to understand what it is trying to say through its provocative and very direct cartoons, which are invariably taken out of context

With its cartoons, the journal has always mocked often serious and even tragic events by using a very basic and somewhat irrational schoolboy sense of humour. But a very clear opposition to and/or criticism of the subject matter depicted by the cartoon always accompanies the mockery. This technique is applied to anything and anybody, from the pope to your mother-in-law. This broad-scale derisory prowess is underscored by an in-depth study, carried out by the very serious Le Monde newspaper, which shows that Charlie Hebdo is far from being obsessed with Islam, as most people think. From 2005 up to the date of the attack in January 2015, only 38% of the front-page cartoons mocked religion, 7% of which directly targeted Islam – three times less than the criticism of Christianity. In fact, if Charlie Hebdo did have an obsession, it was probably with President Sarkozy and the French National Front party. If anything, Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing publication, against all forms of racism, but intransigent when it comes to religious obscurantism – and that’s where it hurts. Even the president of France’s biggest anti-racism movement – SOS Racisme – described Charlie Hebdo as anti-racist.

“Charlie Hebdo is the biggest anti-racism weekly in France… Every week, more than half the paper’s content is directed against racism” – Dominique Sopo, president SOS Racisme

Hurricane Harvey

In the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, Charlie Hebdo’s front page received widespread condemnation, especially on social media in the United States.

The front cover of the often controversial magazine depicting victims of Hurricane Harvey flood victims

Again, most of the reactions underscore a profound misunderstanding of the message the cartoon was intended to convey. The cartoon depicts drowning people saluting Nazi flags, with the caption “God exists – He has drowned all the Neo-Nazis of Texas”. Detailed analyses of the cartoon and the message it sends – supposedly disrespect for the victims, classified as Nazis – has been the subject of many a tweet. Others have accused Charlie Hebdo of forgetting the world-wide support it received after the dreadful attacks of 2015. All have missed the point of the cartoon, despite the clear message.  The fact that Charlie Hebdo, once again dare I say, has used a cartoon to say the unsayable and provoked such an outcry, underscores the power and usefulness of cartoons and the talent of their creators.

The real butt of the joke

To understand the cartoon, one must see it through a ‘cynical’ lens and not take it at face-value. It is not attacking the victims of hurricane Harvey, but rather the US president, Donald Trump. During a time of natural disaster, we have forgotten the effects of his own disaster – his policies both at home and abroad, particularly, his ambiguous reactions to the Charlottesville demonstration by Neo-Nazi groups, where he ended up blaming both sides and condemning neither. The violence in Charlottesville was an acrid reminder of Germany in the 1930s, where Nazi and communist ideologies also led to violent clashes.

Texas, which voted for a president who is so determined to ignore the effects of climate change, might well be in for some more tough weather in the very near future, courtesy of the lodger in the heavens, who might be looking down on us after all. In listening to his close adviser, Robert Walker, saying that climate change research at NASA had become “heavily politicised”, Donald Trump has proposed to terminate four  NASA-led climate research projects, arguing that NASA should be more focused on outer-space than on planet Earth.

It is probably fair to say that the true cynics may be found outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo – within the offices of the White House. In visiting Texas in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, Donald Trump was more concerned about his own ratings and image than by the victims of the disaster. He claimed to have experienced the devastation at first hand:

However, camera footage exposed the American president for what he really is – too scared to venture outside, worried about his poll ratings, television audience and, last but not least, his $40-a-piece cap business.

He has also confirmed, once again, that he is not totally in control of what he says. His wish for the thousands of victims who had just lost their homes, to “have a good time“, is cynical to say the least, and could be used as a caption for a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. How can the homeless and dead have fun? Unless, of course, the hurricane itself is fun and exciting and you’re only passing by, anyway.

Carry-On Charlie

If taken at face-value, the cartoon appears deeply offensive, and nothing I can write will change that. However, it serves as a wake-up call. Americans must wake up to the fact that people wearing the Iron Cross – a German military medal that was turned into a Nazi symbol – who support ideologies responsible for the death of my father’s entire family, are allowed to show off their identity and threaten the peace, on the streets of an American city. Please allow ME to be deeply offended.

Seeming to insult and mock the victims of a natural disaster, who may not even have voted for Trump anyway, only serves to emphasise the violent disregard for the victims of Nazi ideology shown by the demonstrators and the president who allows them to do so. It is Nazi ideology that these people support, and no other. They use the wonderful American freedoms to do so openly – promoting their vicious ideology, with or without guns. Charlie Hebdo, in contrast, has only published a harmless cartoon. The big difference between the two is that you can insult Charlie Hebdo back if you want to without fear of being hurt or killed by a car on the rampage. That, in itself, is worth defending.

The cartoon was certainly a provocation, using a real-life drama with real-life people, in order to bring to trial an ideology belonging to our darkest past that must be buried forever.

Before casting judgement on the moral values of others, Americans should critically analyse their own values. We, as Europeans, have adapted freedom of speech and opinions – in the aftermath of WWII – in order to bury, but not forget, the gruesome face of Nazism. America can be proud of its First Amendment, which represents freedom in its purest form. Donald Trump is even prepared to defend this freedom with guns, if necessary – courtesy of Amendment number two.

The Second Amendment gives shameless nostalgic fascists the power of words and gunfire. As Europeans, we cannot and must not allow the sort of physical provocations and defiance that took place in Charlottesville. Words and cartoons are harmless and have not murdered anybody. You can ignore harsh and unpleasant words but not flying bullets coming your way. We must now decide, once and for all, whether publications such as Charlie Hebdo, who disturb and offend without inciting hatred, are allowed to continue. If so, we must defend them.

Morality begins with consistency – tolerating written opinions that do not affect us personally, as well as those that do. The latter are much harder to accept, but they form the basis of true freedom. You can think what you like of Charlie Hebdo but don’t shut it up. Like it or not, we are all Charlie forever, and that – as the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man told us – “is so safe, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Bien joué, Charlie… (Well played, Charlie)

Charlie Hebdo, satire, free speech, hurricane Harvey, Islam

About George Suchett-Kaye

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George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.

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