Most Americans, if they’ve thought about it at all, imagine Charlie Hebdo to be what the media likes to call it, a “satirical weekly.” Sort of like The Onion, maybe, or National Lampoon. Mad magazine, even. But to call Charlie Hebdo a satirical weekly is like calling Stalin’s murder of seven million Kulaks an “agricultural reform.” It’s not precisely wrong, it’s just obscenely misleading.

But first, some background on our friends at Charlie Hebdo:

* About that name. “Charlie,” believe it or not, comes from Charlie Brown. The founders of Charlie Hebdo were fond of the Peanuts comic strip, and a Peanuts cartoon ran in the very first issue of Charlie Hebdo. “Charlie” was also a sly dig at Charles de Gaulle (see below). “Hebdo” is short for hebdomadaire, meaning “weekly.” They say “Charle Hebdo” as we would say “Atlantic Monthly.”(1)

* Provenance. Many Americans imagine Charlie Hebdo must be a new publication, since they never heard of it, possibly one that arose to counter radical Islam. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Charlie Hebdo’s ancestry dates all the way back to 1960 – the damn thing is almost as old as my wife – when its predecessor publication, Hara-Kiri, launched.

* Reception in France. Charlie Hebdo has almost always been wildly popular in France, both among the French at large and with the French government. It often sells 100,000 copies weekly, a distribution that a thoughtful, erudite, amusing blogger – I’m not mentioning any names – can only dream about. True, Charlie Hebdo has, very occasionally, been banned by the government, although never for the right reasons. In 1970, Hara-Kiri was banned, not for spewing venomous hatred of religion, but for insulting the (already dead) Charles de Gaulle.(2) To get around the ban, the name was changed to Charlie Hebdo and the scandal sheet continued merrily on its way. In 2006, when Charlie Hebdo was sued by mainstream Islamic organizations for racism, future French president François “Mad Dog” Hollande wrote to the court in support of the magazine and the court tossed the case. As far as I know, the only time Charlie Hebdo ever lost a court case was when it (bizarrely) fired a staffer for anti-Semitism. The court found for the anti-Semite and awarded substantial damages. The rationale for the ruling, as far as I can tell, was that it’s okay to be anti-Semitic if you’re also anti-Islamic and anti-Christian.

One reason Americans don’t understand what Charlie Hebdo is is that there is no American analog. There isn’t, because there couldn’t be. I don’t mean that such a rag would be legally censored. I simply mean that Americans wouldn’t tolerate it. We’re too respectful of religion and even of politicians. There’s a line we won’t cross, and if someone crosses that line, as Charlie Hebdo does every Wednesday, that’s the end of them.

Thus, to give you a fair example of what Charlie Hebdo is, we’ll have to engage in a vile thought experiment. Let’s imagine a college grad-gone-bad who has joined a survivalist community outside Fargo. In his undergrad days, our college grad-gone-bad edited the student newspaper at North Dakota State University of Agriculture, the North Dakota State Frozen Catboxliner,(3) and he now decides to launch a weekly skinhead journal he calls Revenge! Weekly. Revenge! lambastes the usual skinhead targets: Jews, African Americans, “papists,” political liberals. Each issue is chock full of virulent attacks, obscene cartoons, racist venom, infantile nonsense.

What would happen to such a publication? It would simply die on the vine, as all such publications have done in the US down through the years. No one would buy it, no one would read it, the media would ignore it, and it would implode, drawn down by its own childishness.

You now know what Charlie Hebdo is: a scurrilous, racist, far-left-wing, hate-mongering, venom-spewing, obscene, puerile rag that targets Jews (especially via racist caricatures), Islam (especially by drawing the Prophet as naked and engaged in sodomy with the Pope or a Jew), Catholicism (see previous parenthetical), and any politician to the right of Stalin. Not only that, Charlie Hebdo is proud of being exactly those things.(4)

But so what? So there’s a scumbag rag published in France and read, presumably, by scumbags. Who cares? Not me.

But, my friends, how do we explain the bizarre spectacle of three million Frenchmen taking to the streets, and shouting, in effect, “I am [a scurrilous, scumbag, race-baiting scandal sheet]!” It seems incomprehensible, even for the French.(5) Americans might have the excuse that we believed the media, who told us Charlie Hebdo was simply a “satirical weekly.” But the French knew better, they knew exactly what Charlie Hebdo is.

The solution to the mystery of how the French could have gone so appallingly wrong can be found in one word: laïcité.

We’ll look into that in my next post.

(1) Yes, I know, they now call themselves “The Atlantic.” They’re hoping someone will mistake them for a hip, contemporary media phenomenon – like this blog.

(2) You’re not allowed to insult de Gaulle in France because he is considered a paradigmatic French hero, having remained safely in England during the war. When de Gaulle died in Colombey, back in 1970, more than 100 people had recently died in a nightclub fire near Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, and the media frenzy was nutso. So Hara-Kiri carried a headline that read, “Tragic Ball at Colombey, One Dead.” I’m reminded of Lester Maddox, a segregationist governor of Georgia in the 1960s. I think it was Mad magazine who carried the newsflash, “A fire broke out Wednesday evening in Gov. Maddox’s library, destroying both books.”

(3) No, I’m not making fun of you people who went to NDSUA&AS, but you do need to do something about your motto: “North Dakota State – where the ‘N’ stands for Nowledge!”

(4) During its Hara-Kiri incarnation, a reader wrote in to complain that the publication was “bête et méchant” (dumb and nasty). This promptly became the publication’s slogan and it is now an everyday expression in France.

(5) Amusingly, not everyone at Charlie Hebdo was enthusiastic about the outpouring of French support. One of the surviving cartoonists, a fellow called Willem, announced, in pure Charlie Hebdoese, “We vomit on those who suddenly declared that they were our friends.”

Next up: Am I Charlie? (Part 4)

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