Jan 31st 2015

Come back Voltaire, we need your ideas

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

“It is not only very cruel in this short life to persecute those who do not think in the same way as we do, but I am also doubtful that we are justified in pronouncing them eternally damned.”

-- Voltaire, Treatise on Tolerance, 1763

French culture from Voltaire forward has brought us many wonders – poets, novelists, artists and philosophers -- and they all thrive on confrontation. France is perhaps the world’s last true bouillon de culture, a constant bubbling pot of conflicting ideas. But rarely have the intellectuals been as combative as today, arguing amongst themselves in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon killings.

Drawing: Voltaire by the author, Michael Johnson

Almost immediately following the murder of Charlie staffers on Jan. 7, the nearly bankrupt cartoon weekly was elevated to a symbol of liberty by the country’s many loquacious commentators. More than a million French citizens took to the streets in the name of free expression, and television talk shows now deal with little else. Everyone seems to have opinions, and they range from the wacky to the stratospheric.

The well-publicized “Je suis Charlie” million-man march appeared to unite the public. I joined the Bordeaux march and found it an emotional experience. Several French marchers even spoke in civil terms to me as we moved around town in close formation.

Newsdealers tell me they normally sell one or two Charlies a week but now are besieged by demand for it. Kiosks in my Bordeaux neighborhood have set up waiting lists for copies as they arrive from Paris.

It is shocking to hear many French people say the cartoonists, who dared to mock Islam, got what they deserved.  I have personally heard this time and again as the issue becomes more clouded and confused. Many observers have a difficult time deciding what they think or where they stand.

The week following the march, when a minute of silence was decreed by the French government in homage to the dead cartoonists, several dozen school children around the country, one as young as 8, refused to observe it. The unity in support of Charlie was revealed as superficial fraterinté in the heat of the moment.

In fact the tragic climax in the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a collision of two strains of thought doomed to confront each other: the cartoonists disregarded the beliefs of a different faith, and the radical Islamists had no concept of free speech.

The magazine’s favorite target has long been any kind of authority figure and all organized religions, including Islam. But everyone gets it in the neck, even the Pope. Islamists have erupted but so far the Vatican has let it pass.

For the uninitiated, it’s best not to look too closely at this magazine. The current issue leads with a cartoon showing a prune-faced catholic nun, recently deceased, imagining the oral sex she will dispense when she gets to heaven. Another shows Islamic terrorists agreeing to take it easy on the surviving Charlie cartoonists so that the 70 virgins waiting to service Muslim martyrs will still be available to them when they blow themselves to pieces, kamikaze-style.

Very unfunny, both of them, I thought. 

The facts are straightforward. Twelve people at the magazine’s editorial office were shot to death by two French-born Islamist men of north African origin, allied with al-Qaeda in faraway Yemen, while a third associate from Mali killed a policewoman on the streets of Paris then shot four others to death in a kosher supermarket. All three shooters were eventually cornered and killed by the French special police.

The core issue in the public debate has steadily slipped from jihadist fanaticism to the larger question of how free our speech should actually be. The underlying danger in this over-heated climate is what appears to be the ominous slide toward the Islamic view. Already in Britain, television presenters have refused to show the cover of the latest Charlie for fear of offending Britain’s Muslim population. It depicts Mohamed saying, “All is forgiven.” 

About 10 percent of the French population is Muslim, and thousands of Christians are reported to be converting annually. Meanwhile, dozens of young French men and women are making their way to Yemen and Syria to show solidarity and possibly bring the struggle home to France. The French government is preparing for the worst. Some 2,600 recruits are being sought to strengthen the policing of Islamic neighborhoods where further terrorist incidents might be planned.

Against such trends are the defenders of continued openness, a fundamental facet of modern democracy. New York Times media expert David Carr, a model of clear thinking, argues for free expression however chaotic it might seem. He put it succinctly: “Defending free speech means defending knuckleheads and visionaries alike.”

Of all commentators past and present, Voltaire has been the most in evidence. His slim volume Treatise on Tolerance soared to the top ten Amazon France sales for a several days, and is still at 102 three weeks after the event. By contrast, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, normally considered a favorite of French readers, ranks at 7,215.

Never have the wise words of Voltaire so deserved to be exhumed from their origins 250 years ago. He spent most of his life arguing for freedom of expression. Pressure from the monarchy and the Catholic Church thought-police hounded him but never managed to silence him. 

Rereading the treatise, published first in Geneva, one is struck today by the boldness of his ideas, many of them as fresh as current thinking. I have studied Voltaire in some depth and have imagined how indignant he would be to find so many of us nearly as blinkered as the worst of his time. I concocted a one-act play giving him space to vent his frustrations. It appeared on www.openlettersmonthly.com and on this site and can be accessed here:

In the Treatise, he builds his argument around the Catholic-Protestant tensions of 18th century Toulouse.  Today, look to Northern Ireland or substitute Sunni and Shiite and you find the same degree of blind hatred. Voltaire’s short, scrawny frame might shudder as he would repeat this thought from the Treatise:

“ … we ought to look upon all men as our brothers. What? Call a Turk, a Jew, and a Siamese my brother? Yes, of course, for are we not all children of the same father, and the creatures of the same God?”

His appeal to reason is repeated by French intellectuals today but he said it first: 

“The best way to reduce the number of maniacs  … is to abandon this spiritual sickness in favor of reason, which enlightens us gradually but undeniably. Reason is kind, humanitarian and prompts indulgence, snuffs out discord, strengthens virtue and leads to a society of laws…”

And he might well have been appearing on French television as he summed it all up: 

“The fewer dogmas, the fewer disputes; and the fewer disputes, the fewer misfortunes.”

It is easy to say both sides in the Charlie tragedy were wrong. But being deliberately provocative with comic book characters does not deserve a death sentence in the civilized world. One independent cartoonist captured the spirit of the brutish atrocity in a cartoon of a masked killer standing over a dead Charlie staffer and saying, “He drew first.”




To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.


  

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."