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

Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."