Archive for January, 2015

Je suis Charlie

je suis charlie
In the spring of 2013, I was nervously putting together a defense for my dissertation on satire. I had played it safe and written a study about eighteenth-century satire, but I wanted to link what I had to say to contemporary issues in a little speech. There was no shortage of ridiculous attempts at censorship by anal bureaucrats and there were many examples to choose from when it came to moronic retaliations against those who had taken the piss and succeeded rather too well. Today, we have seen yet another retaliation far more hideous than the ones I had to choose from. Fine (and sometimes crude) wits and people around them have been shot down in Paris by monsters who have disgraced themselves and their cause in an unimaginably cruel attack.

It’s an attack that will fuel the fires of extremism, be it Islamic fundamentalism or the hardcore right-wing xenophobic cause. It’s an attack that will “accelerate history”, as the author Michel Houellebecq put it in a recent interview. He was referring to his own book, but the effect of the attack will be the same if not more dramatic. The faces of extremism are more or less identical, especially when two sides are engaged in furious battle. And this is how the catastrophe unfolds: two sides locked in a life-and-death struggle. Bad journalism will make it worse. It’s our time to grow up as a multicultural Europe, but try saying that to a bunch of immature children with guns and antiquated political ideals. What we should never forget in this affair is that there are not two sides to the story. There are at least three, and the representatives of one of those parties are now dead.

In the seventeenth century, one of the great men of the country I currently call home wrote wise words about the role of the satirist in society. The poet, playwright and critic John Dryden had absorbed the best lessons from those Greeks and Romans who were foundational for Western culture. One of their lessons was that a common culture was a fragile creation. The Greek notion of paideia was created to keep it healthy and strong. What is not always emphasized enough is that not only Greeks could take part in its maintenance. If you were part of its sphere of influence, you were a true participant in its creation. No matter where you came from or where you had been. Dryden, musing on these issues, noted that one of the tests of its health and soundness was satire. Satirists were the people who held in their hands the instrument of determining how mad we had become. When the satirist was persecuted, we could be sure that there was something gravely amiss.

Now, brave satirists are dead because of their work. They are dead because they did their civic duty as satirists. In the grand scheme of things, they were not part of the opposition or the status quo, right or left, West or East. They were the minders of our sanity, as satirists have always been. Now, more bravery and more satire is desperately needed. More ideological rebellion, more fuck yous, more determined piss-taking, more mockery of those who would bring all of us to our knees. Make fun of that pompous idiot in a dress who wants to tell you how to think. Make fun of the corrupt politicians who want to tell you how to act. If you do that, great things may happen. If you don’t, they’ve already won.