Je ne suis pas Charlie

Once in a while, I write about political or social topics. Don’t click through if you’re not prepared to stop liking me because our politics differ, or our take on the recent murders in Paris differ.

Others have written it. I’m late to this particular party.

I don’t think people deserve to be killed for what they say.

But I think people have a responsibility when they open their mouths, or pick up their pens.

It’s ironic that a million and a half people marched the other day for “freedom of speech” in a country the government of which had shut down the predecessor to “Charlie Hebdo” for publishing a satirical story concerning the death of Charles de Gaulle. If you suggest that the coverage of the death of Charles de Gaulle was excessive, you can be shut down.

France doesn’t have freedom of speech. That wasn’t a march in support of freedom of speech. France has the freedom to insult Muslims and their religious beliefs, and this was a march in support of the right to offend Muslims.

Freedom of speech is a nice idea.

Mark Twain, though, had it right, when he said, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

“Charlie Hebdo” was a reprehensible paper before last week, and their cover this week reveals they remain one. They could have taken the high road, but that’s not a road with which they are familiar. The magazine is a perch from which privileged white people express their contempt for the beliefs of downtrodden brown ones.

In my thirties, I found myself in a market in Hebron/al Khalil – a largely Palestinian city on the west bank of the Jordan River in what was, at the time, occupied territory – on a tour given by a group of right-wing Jewish settlers. The leader of the tour, a man who believed himself an observant Jew (but whose Judaism bears no relation to the religion of my ancestors), pronounced, at the top of his lungs, as we stood in a small circle, surrounded and protected by Israeli soldiers, “The smell you smell is the stench of Arabs living in their own shit.”

Those Arabs – humans, living their lives, doing their shopping – heard what this Californian-by-birth was saying.

I have never been so scared for my life.

Thankfully, they exercised restraint. They didn’t pelt us with stones, or shoot us, or attack us with their fists. No doubt, the dozen soldiers with Uzis had an impact on their decision-making. But still.

At the time, I remember thinking, “These people would be well within their rights if they did attack us.”

I don’t mean to take a position on Israeli settlements or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

I mean to say, sometimes speech can be evil. And while I live in a country that protects even the most extreme speech, there is, even in the U.S., an exception for “fighting words.”

In 1942, in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the United States Supreme Court wrote in a unanimous opinion:

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. [emphasis mine]

I’m not a lawyer. I have no idea whether the “satire” published by “Charlie Hebdo” would qualify as “fighting” words under U.S. law.

But I know they should.

And those fuckers – while they didn’t deserve to die – they didn’t deserve to be able to publish their hateful bile, and I’m resentful that they seem to have exacerbated an already disastrous relationship between the West and Islam.


  1. I really recommend you reading some of Glenn Greenwald’s take on this issue. Agree or disagree, he brings up some fairly salient points.

  2. Or for a lighter and (mercifully) non-hubristic take by another cartoonist, see First Dog on the Moon. (One of my other crushes, N 🙂 )

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