Come back Voltaire, we need your ideas

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian

“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.”




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