Friday, January 09, 2015

Douze Morts...

On the way to school this morning my 7-year-old surprised me by announcing: “Douze morts. Dix qui travaillaient au journal. Deux policiers.” (Twelve dead. Ten who worked at the magazine. Two police.) We have spoken a lot about the attack this week—I found out from another ashen-faced dad just as I was picking the kids up to spend Wednesday afternoon together—but I don’t know when she learned the make up of the body count. Turns out her teacher talked about it at school yesterday and they observed a minute of silence for the victims. That’s not something children should have to experience in CE1 (2nd grade) but I’m glad the teacher did it. Seems like most French schools are tackling this head on, even with younger children. My 4-year-old said he’s sad about the people that were killed and he thinks the bad guys are “moche” (nasty).

door of a nursery school classroom in Angoulême today

I suddenly understood better why our daughter had burst into tears this morning before Jessica left for Paris on a weekend trip that it is too late to cancel. What a world where the idea of a cartoonist going to Paris strikes fear into the heart of her child. (And in fact she’s on the TGV as I type this and there is gunfire being reported near Charles de Gaulle airport.) It’s been hard to process this awful event with two children in my lap. They understand that some cartoonists were killed for making silly drawings—even mean drawings, but that they never hurt anyone, never killed anyone. I wanted them to understand that these were artists like me and Jessica but I had to cut short when I found myself developing an extended and terrifying analogy of gunmen storming the Maison des Auteurs where I’m in residence, shooting B. and P. and then coming upstairs to shoot the artists. But that could never happen. Never. Could it?

As a cartoonist and as a human being this attack has really sent me into a free fall. I’ve been turning in circles all week trying to process it and decide the appropriate way to respond. In one of numerous online discussions I’ve perused I saw my friend Mahendra Singh talking about needing to "cultivate our own gardens” and that phrase from Voltaire’s Candide keeps coming to mind. It’s another pipe dream, but if only people would tend to their own lives and treat those around them with respect and tolerance...

one of many storefront windows of Angoulême today

I’ve never read Charlie Hebdo or much in general in the way of political/satirical cartooning. As an American (as a non-European?) it’s hard not to be shocked and fairly put off by the crude racism that characterizes the artwork even where the gags aren’t as offensive. Domitille Collardey wrote a sensitive post on Facebook about her perspective as a French cartoonist living in the US during all of this. There really is a cultural rift between France and the US (and India, just to give one other example that I was discussing with my friend and MdA neighbor Amruta Patil) that makes it hard to understand why some of these drawings are worth defending. The Je suis Charlie tagline is problematic because Charlie Hebdo is a very particular manifestation of culture that not everyone wants to be 100% on board with. I'm uneasy with it myself and have been reluctant to use it. I’ve seen at least one post saying we shouldn’t be claiming Je suis Charlie because we are thus implicitly condoning the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ bigotry.

I disagree.

I grant that this is pretty extreme as freedom of expression goes. But it’s not hate speech, it’s not incitement to violence. It’s only lines on paper, folks, as R. Crumb is often quoted as saying. And yes, lines do have power, but it’s a rhetorical power. Art is a metaphorical weapon, it is not an AK-47, and THAT’s what Je suis Charlie is about. It’s about honoring the dead, defending free speech and the ideal of a democratic society where problems are solved through art and dialogue—no matter how heated—and not bullets.

I am Charlie.