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Friday, January 16, 2015


The air is full of Charlie Hebdo in Paris this week. At first, it was shock. Now, everybody has an opinion about what somebody should have said they didn't say, or the other way around. Somebody said or did something racist. Surprise. Whoever heard of such? Francis the new pope said something I took for fairly rational and pundits are making him out for a fool, doesn't know what he's talking about. He said something like free speech, like everything else, is good in moderation. To insult somebody's faith is using free speech to harm. He didn't condemn it or say there oughta be a law. He simply noted that speech has the capacity to be harmful. In my way of seeing it, the boomerang of karma came around. Muslim fundamentalists are hyper sensitive to their belief system of absolutes being challenged, the same as American fundamentalists. They're right and everybody else is wrong. To quote Mitch McConnell, "Period." Those people are humorless and of zero tolerance. The Charlie Hebdo people were challenging intolerant absolutists. OK, so that's not PC, but it doesn't matter when they have AKs. If there were a Muslim satire magazine in Los Angeles that shamed American fundamentalism with in-yer-face laughter and mocked Jesus, consequences would be inevitable. In Paris, they're talking like freedom of speech is important. Hearing it with American ears, such talk sounds old-fashioned, like questioning capital punishment, the 1950s. I remember my ears perking up when I heard the talk about the importance of freedom of speech. I can imagine Obama paying it lip service in a rally-round-me speech that, like other American political speeches, has no meaning whatsoever, but as smoke screen for what they're not saying. I wondered if French politicians were not as sophisticated as American, or if American were not as sophisticated as French. Seeing the American part from the inside, I already know our politicians have no sophistication at all. American politicians come from an anti-sophistication people.

I suspect the French have not yet been taken over by corporate mind control. That they have television tells me the probability is not far away. All I know about the French is from French writers and art films. I love the French je ne sais quoi that characterizes French art in all its forms. To me, French is a culture, a sophisticated culture. I don't know if the French appreciate their artists any more than the Americans don't appreciate our artists. I've noticed in films, the French are quick to say, of course, something inhibited in American talking. I can't say conversation. We don't do conversation in America. We do distraction. We talk. An old country saying, a dog is barking to hear its head roar. We talk to hear our heads roar. We are characterized by willful a-literacy. It felt heartening to hear a Frenchman talk of the freedom of speech as something important and sound like he meant it. I wondered if he might be ahead of the times or behind the times. The trend seems to be going away from freedom of speech. The North Korean reaction to the American film, Interview, made fun news. Like all laws, they are for court, after the fact. Abusing somebody with freedom of speech, legal in court, will create a reaction. The reaction will make the abuser cry persecution. The pope left out when you mock someone's faith, a wrath will come back to you in a form you don't want. In Paris, the satirists were walking a knife's edge and they knew it. They were stirring volatile people, fundamentalists, and they knew it. It was their purpose. It's not my place to point out blame. It seems to me a natural law that what goes around comes around. Provoke just about anybody, you will get a reaction in proportion to the hurt delivered. To mock one's faith is below the belt. The return will be below the belt. They knew they were taking a chance. One day death walked in the door dressed in black. 

I'm not saying the Charlie Hebdo people should have done anything differently. There is no should about it. They made their decision, acted on it. Someone else made a decision and acted on it. The reaction I'd call overkill, but it makes a measure of the hurt the satire delivered. My feeling is Muslims are regarded in Paris about like black people are regarded in any American city. The Muslims resent being shunned. They are proud people too. When something extreme happens, they would quite naturally react in extreme, and through a few volunteers do what everyone else wants to do, but can't allow themselves. Another old saying, It's the weak link in the chain that breaks. I call the satirical cartoonists brave people, knowing they were aware of the danger. I take them for people who like the edge, people who climb Himalayan mountains solo. I have freedom of speech, but I don't use it to provoke others with disrespect. I don't do it, because I know something I don't want will come back. This is partially why I am not a satirist. Even if I were, I would not mock Krishna to Hindus or Zoroaster to Parsis. I would not mock Martin Luther King to disrespect black people. This is the difference between me and a satirist in an extreme time. I don't mean to deny them their right. It's just that I don't want the consequences for such action to come back on my head. This is why I align myself with the pope's thinking on the matter. Free speech is a good thing, but push it too far and, like anything else, it breaks. Had they lived, they would have won in court. In America, it's legal for the False News Network to tell fake news. A case of freedom of speech gone awry. Generating hate like they do will inevitably come back on them. The fake televangelists get their fraudulent tax-free fortunes, then are publicly discredited for private indiscretions. They point the finger at everybody else. The turn-around comes and all fingers point at them. I felt like what the pope wanted to say was something like consequences follow words and actions, but it sounds too callous to speak from on high. I think he was talking about self-editing with consideration of others in mind, living in peace.      

Fifties comedian Lenny Bruce pushed the obscenity laws and suffered for it. There again, I would not have been one to push the obscenity envelope. It doesn't matter that much to me. The Sixties band, the Fugs, pushed the obscenity laws and spent about all the money they made as a band in court defending obscenity charges. There again, it's not my issue. The satirists in Paris were pushing an envelope of zero tolerance with dangerous consequences. I think of Paris with a large North African underclass, people there for political and survival reasons, every one his and her own story. My first feeling when I heard about the Charlie Hebdo incident was sadness that artists were shot down. Gentle people who don't settle issues with guns. One thing it said to me was art matters. In this country, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ caused a furious backlash. It didn't fire somebody up to assassination, but might have. I remember when Giuliani kept his name in the news for a week over a painting in the Brooklyn museum with a couple of balls of elephant dung, painted, hanging from strings. It was called Madonna. She was black. It offended his faith mixing a black mother of God with elephant shit. He failed in his efforts to have it removed from the show, but that wasn't the purpose. The purpose was his name in headlines. Jesse Helms made headlines attempting to censor Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. He failed, but it drew plenty of attention to himself. I would not drop a crucifix into a jar of piss to make an artistic statement. I can see what Serrano was about, and defend his right to do it. He was pushing the envelope, seeing how far he could go. What it did for Serrano's art was make him famous overnight. I'm all for these people pushing the envelope further and further. I may not want to provoke a backlash, but I defend the right of anyone who wants to. It feels good to see the remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo sold out their edition of three million right away and printed two more million, then two more million. It appears this experience has boosted their determination.



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