Once upon a time, the terrorist attacks in Paris would have evoked an impersonal response in me. But now, I view them with a telephoto lens. I know the streets, the boulevards, the buildings. After living in France for a month last summer, I know something of the French sense of order. And so I can feel what the Parisians must be feeling right now.
And yet, after looking at the Charlie Hebdo cartoons for which their creators were killed, I am left feeling, well, absolutely nothing. Or rather, if I am to be honest, I am experiencing a mild sense of nausea. I am sorry but I don’t get the joke. I, who have collected books of New Yorker cartoons, who always looked at the caricature on the Times of India front page, fail to see the humor.
What is funny about Mohammed on all fours, displaying his genitalia?
What is funny about Mohammed declaring, “It is hard to be loved by idiots?”
What is funny about Mohammed declaring, “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing?”
I will just have to take the 100 lashes, I suppose.
As I look at the cartoons, certain vignettes come back to me. I am riding the Metro when a tall, dark African enters the car with a boom box. The old lady in front of me immediately tenses. She tries to convey through her body language her sense of outrage. When that fails, she protests loudly. I do not know if her irritation is born out of racism or simply the French sense of discipline.
But I imagine a similar scene in BART. Perhaps the other riders are equally irritated. But they dig their heads deeper into their newspapers, avoiding visibly reacting to the offending party.
Which society is better?
Another vignette. I am going on a hike with my hosts in the corniches above the Riviera. Coming around a bend in the denuded hills, I am dwarfed by an outsized statue of the Notre Dame du Afrique, Our Lady of Africa, whose original copy resides in the basilica of Algiers.
This one is a memorial to local citizens who perished in the war of Algerian independence, I am told, which is why the lady gazes at Algeria across the Mediterranean.
“Are the Algerians commemorated too?” I ask, and am met with blank stares. And yet the same hiking companions speak glowingly of Indian immigrants who have been brought here to work for high-tech companies. This is a country experiencing a crisis of identity, I sense.
In the Midi-Pyrenees, where I am staying on a farm, my American host speaks of the rising xenophobia in France. She cannot get a job as a schoolteacher, she informs me, because of her accent. And yet, I come across guardian angels everywhere. Could it be because I do not look very ethnic; that I have a universal face which allows me to pass through any continent without drawing attention?
Against the backdrop of such vignettes, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons do not seem very funny to me. The history of French involvement in Algeria—the ethnic origin of the Paris terrorists—is replete with aggression, exploitation, and violence. In fact, a controversial exhibit I saw in 2012 at the Invalides outlined this bloody history, to the consternation of many patriots.
I am not saying that a massacre is justified in response to cartoons but should not the cartoon makers be a little more careful about offending the sensibilities of minority ethnic groups?
In the United States, the owner of a basketball team was forced to sell it after making racist remarks. The general manager of the Atlanta Hawks has been disciplined for making offensive remarks about a player. Laws against hate speech won out in these cases over the persons’ rights to free speech. A country whose history is fraught with systematized racism cannot afford the luxury of such offensive speech. Perhaps France should also scrutinize its own history, in which, as recently as 2013, a Roma girl was snatched away from a school field trip and deported.
The best humor for me is often self-deprecating. When the people in power make fun of the disempowered, the result is not humor but oppression.
Recently, the SF Chronicle film critic lightheartedly quipped that perhaps the real reason Kim Jong Un hacked Sony Pictures was not because its film told the story of an assassination plot against him but that the movie was just not very funny.
Media outlets around the world are declaring solidarity with Charlie Hebdo based on the principle of free speech. But I myself cannot help wondering if it is good art.
I am not condoning the massacre of a dozen people because of the cartoons they drew but I hope that in addition to the discussion about free speech, this tragic incident will also generate some debate as to what constitutes good humor.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.