Grand pronouncements are nice but having a full life is better – the truth about Charlie Hebdo

Progressive journalist and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald has a motto: “Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.” He rejects the idea that atrocious public figures deserve a reprieve from condemnation upon their death. By his philosophy, if they commit sins in the public square, then let ‘em have it once they croak.

I don’t agree with Greenwald on this invidious practice. For respect’s sake, we shouldn’t pounce before the blood is dry, even on the most mendacious figures. We’re all guilty, on occassion, of the same motivations that inspire the worst dictators. Some period of time is owed before pointing out personal failings.

In that spirit, I think the requisite amount of time has passed to comment on something disturbing about the whole Charlie Hebdo shooting affair. While I agree with Pat Buchanan that desecrating sacred objects is neither wise nor worthy of celebration, my beef is more specific. Following the shooting, government leaders and the Fourth Estate celebrated the unqualified right of free speech of all people (the blatant contradiction of criminalized Holocaust denial in Paris didn’t faze the showboats). The outpouring of support was bolstered by repeatedly dredging up an old quote by Charlie editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier. In an interview conducted after the 2011 firebombing of the magazine’s office, the head of the iconoclast publication declared, “This may sound pompous, but I prefer to die standing up than live on my knees.”

Pompous indeed. But humility is an anachronism from an age long gone. So it’s OK to make such bold statements and expect glorification. Mr. Charbonnier didn’t disappoint, as his pronouncement was praised upon his unfortunate murder. National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote “those words deserve to be etched in marble somewhere.” Fox News’ Howard Kurtz called it a “courageous stance.”

In all this praise, the preceding sentence to Charb’s quote was all but ignored. Before drawing his line in the stand for free expression, he pointed out “I have no kids, no wife, no car, no loans.” Why does this matter?

Well, it’s easy to take a stand when you don’t have much to lose. Fighting for a cause is noble when there is something on the line. With nothing to sacrifice, struggle just seems pointless.

By his own admission, Charb lacked many of life’s great belongings. He didn’t have a family of his own to look out for. He didn’t have much property to keep intact. He lacked religion, and the salvific focus it brings. Presumably, his art was the main focus of his life. That’s fine and all, but still kind of sad. Cartoons aren’t children. Magazine print isn’t the same as making a sacred commitment to someone you love. Copy isn’t the same as revelatory psalms.

Freaking the norms is good fun in adolescence. Poking the bear of authority is also a blast. But making a career out of offending tradition, with little else to show is just pitiful.

Charb’s life and death are reminiscent of Thoreau’s attempt to carve out a principled existence in a society that didn’t value its freedom. Famously documented – documented almost too meticulously – in the classic Walden, Thoreau excluded himself to the woods to get back to nature. He disliked the industrialization that was transforming American society in the mid-19th century. Of his isolation, he famously wrote,

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau lived deliberately alright. He escaped the binds of capitalism by freeloading off his pal and fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Bard of Concord owned the land Thoreau camped on. Walden Pond was not communal property. It was also owned by Emerson. Like Marx feeding off the profits of Engels’ textile factory, Thoreau used private property to craft his manual on all-natural living.

Thoreau didn’t embrace isolation either. He visited the local town frequently. His aunt did his laundry and made sure he didn’t experience the real hardships of vagabond life. Despite all this hypocrisy, Walden remains a classic text in both literature and philosophy. The “green movement” in particular is fond of the anti-industrial notions that permeate throughout the book.

It’s certainly possible to respect an author’s viewpoint while acknowledging they fell short of their own expectations. To repeat, we’re all guilty of sin and hypocrisy on occasion. But disingenuousness stinks; and the stench distracts from the teacher’s larger message. Thoreau’s observances on self-reliance and small-living are diminished by his lackluster attempt to fully adopt the ethos. The same applies to Charb, who makes a principled stand for the freedom of expression without really risking all the much in the end.

Accumulating worldly possessions shouldn’t be the goal of any life. I’m not criticizing Charb’s apparent disdain for materialism. Rather, my concern is that he lived above the fray of everyday life. His interests, principled as they were, didn’t align with average people who have a spouse, a crappy job, and a mortgage. Perhaps that put him in a better position to fight for the free exchange of ideas. Or maybe it left him unfulfilled and fueled his nonconformist art. We’ll never know.

Staking out a position and defending it to the point of physical liability is a tricky thing. In some cases it’s noble. In others, it’s empty bluster. Even communitarian Wendell Berry was willing to go to jail over onerous government regulations. But at the age of 75, he acknowledged that his familial responsibilities were complete. He had little to lose because he had so much beforehand. Charb couldn’t say the same. He ultimately got his wish: he died standing up for the garish practice of slandering spiritual icons. For what has yet to be determined.

It goes without saying the Charlie Hebdo shooting was a tragedy. But I still question what was really achieved in all the provocation and bloodshed. Radical Islam is far from demoralized. A slew of progressive cartoonists are dead. Irreverence didn’t save their lives.

Making a martyr out of Charlie did little to advance the cause of justice. It only gave the usual suspects another excuse to preen themselves before television cameras. And that’s the sad truth of it all.

(Image source)


  1. What’s more ironic is that right after that, the French authorities repressed free speech, when it was being used for anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism. It was one big event of hypocricy.

    And I got nothing negative to say to people who have little to lose, and defy injustice. They are needed, cuz everyone else is too chicken.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You take a personal unfortunate detour here within a larger unfortunate detour taken by others. The question of whether Charb was a hero hinges on whether he was taking his risks to advance something valuable to the rest of us. That is, whether _Charlie_ had redeeming value or not. Instead you argue that Charb was no hero because he had little to lose. That’s a scary tack to take!

    To say that with only one’s life and work, “you don’t have much to lose,” that they’re “nothing to sacrifice,” or that risking it isn’t “really risking all that much,” sets up a pretty dismissive approach to judging virtue, or membership in the club of those whose experiences and sacrifices make what they say meaningful to us. In fact you proceed to pour Thoreau and without realizing it the authors, translators and preachers of the Psalms down the same drain. Heaven forbid your own children should develop senses of humor, a fondness for solitude, or a talent for art, or it could literally be the babies with the bathwater.

    A hero is not someone who sacrifices something I value, but someone who risks what he values, *for* a value we both share. And I might well not like Charb et al.’s aims or results if I looked. I haven’t because pondering _Charlie’s_ behavior is the larger detour here.

    They were living people. It’s essential to protect free speech for people that no one would call heroes. Not even because the occasional heroic rebel justifies protecting all the jerks. It’s the whole mixture of reprehensible, crappy and more visibly valuable speech, and the people who do or might speak it, that’s worth protecting. Whenever someone is harmed for what they say, we all have a chance to face whether we find, e.g., _Charlie’s_ effect on the world as important as the status of free speech.

    Liked by 1 person

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