The "Republican March" on Sunday, 11thJanuary 7-9, 2015 will remain in French memories like September 11, 2001 in America. But the events might prove to be more profoundly upsetting for the national identity, because of the symbols that madmen chose as their prime target: some cartoonists who prided themselves in respecting nothing. The weekly Charlie Hebdo claimed to be a “beastly nasty newspaper.” Nevertheless, the victims repeatedly polished their image of smart nice guys who wouldn’t hurt a fly and just exposed stupidity – religion being its most harmful form with cops not far behind.
The day after the first killings, the message was everywhere in the media: “I’m Charlie.” Which implied: “I identify with those iconoclasts. You can’t slaughter us all. The freedom of speech is irrepressible. Democracy will survive bigotry as it has prevailed over Fascism, etc.” But few people are aware of the inconsistency of declaring something supreme while maintaining that anything can and even should be derided. Indeed, it is the same subversion of language as self-proclaimed smart nice guys joyfully producing a “beastly nasty newspaper.”
What freedom of speech remains when words mean their opposite and speaking your mind becomes impossible on the public square? How could this fail to trigger frustrations? The label “sacred” is declared obscene but the right to ridicule what is dear to others has no limits. Now the unchallengeable right to desecrate could be called “sacred” if the term had not been banned, so that the thing still exists but upside down and can no longer be named. In 1984, George Orwell had foreseen that totalitarianism implied the destruction of words in order to narrow the range of thought.
Of course, secularized France is not ruled by Big Brother. But the process of her undoing and surrender is under way, because of her weakness for what can generously be called humor but is actually a means to substitute uncontrollable laughter for the rational talk which is the foundation of civilization. A good parable of such lapsing back into savagery is found in William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. How does the ambitious boy who wants to become chief manage to win over the others? He has made a big mistake and because he cannot justify himself, he just parodies the plaintive tone of his critics. It’s so hilarious that everyone starts giggling and finally follows him in wild dancing. Arbitrary nonsense can then reign unopposed provided it offers immediate fun.
This is the kind of decadence that was already denounced by three books which were considered as “politically incorrect” before those ugly murders and have now been conveniently buried. One is The French Suicide, by columnist and TV talk show star Eric Zemmour. He shot himself in the leg when he claimed that the Vichy régime had protected Jews from the Nazis. But he scored a point with his argument that over the last four decades France has been increasingly subjected to the whims of the now grown-up but still irresponsible student rebels who trumpeted in May ‘68 at the Sorbonne that it is forbidden to forbid anything: after climbing their way up in right- as well as left-wing politics, these guys have refused to keep in check budget deficits and immigration.
Mr. Zemmour’s provocations would have been ridiculed and disregarded if they had not been a populist version of an essay by another Jew (no more religious, but hailed as a serious philosopher): Alain Finkielkraut, recently elected to the Académie française. In Uncomfortable Identity (2013), he argued that the French are no longer allowed to love France and forced to adopt multiculturalism and relativism, which is profitable only to the élites and discourages the social integration of both the lower classes and immigrants, who generally fail to make the most of disbelief or enjoy nonsense.
Last but not least, only days before the Charlie massacre, award-winning novelist Michel Houellebecq (a supporter of Charlie’s) released Submission – which is precisely what ”Islam” means. It is politics-fiction: in 2022 a Muslim wins the French presidential election and imposes Islamic veils and polygamy. This is made possible by French sloppiness: when you no longer believe in anything, when you have so many options that choosing or refusing becomes tiresome, Islam may seem slightly less unbearable than the jingoistic National Front…
Apparently, the shock of the carnage has had positive effects: critics of Charlie readily agreed that bad-taste cartoons definitely can’t justify murder. Last Sunday’s “Republican march” was a rare display of unity and consensus, including between religions. But inconsistencies remain. When watching the police besiege and shoot the killers live on television, one couldn’t help remembering Charlie’s savage caricatures of low-brow helmeted riot squads. Those who staged a mass demonstration to identify with Charlie had forgotten that they had declared similar rallies meaningless exactly two years ago, when the goal was to protest against same-sex unions – which contribute to disintegrating language and civilization by calling “marriage” something else.
One major issue is whether the official secularism will finally recognize that religion is a social phenomenon that cannot be limited to the private sphere and assiduously scorned until it infallibly disappears, as Charlie advocated and blindly believed. This is probably the price all the Charlies will have to pay to respect and live in peace with not only their Muslim fellow-citizens, but also Christians whose faith that “God’s Kingdom is not of this world” invented secularity.