Testing the meaning of tolerance

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Irony is, after all, its stock in trade.

How surprising is it, then, to learn that, just before the fatal attacks on 12 of its staffers last week, the French satirical organ, Charlie Hebdo, was well on its way to organ failure – the victim of falling sales and dwindling readership?

Now, it will live forever, not so much as a worthy compendium of political commentary and provocative humour, but as a symbol of French resistance to tyranny. (Not exactly what the gang of murderous thugs, brandishing kalashnikovs and invocations to the prophet Muhammad, was hoping to achieve).

Then, of course, around the world there were organized marches in memoriam for the dead and in solidarity for the principles of free speech. In the City of Lights, alone, gathered a throng of 1.5 million comprising people from all walks of life – some deserving to attend; some, in the opinion of many, not so much.

According to a piece in the Guardian online, “Press freedom campaigners condemned the presence of world leaders attending the unity rally in Paris on Sunday who have poor records on human rights and the free press in their home countries. Reporters without Borders singled out leaders from Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as being responsible for particularly harsh environments for journalists. These countries rank respectively 159th, 154th, 148th, 121st and 118th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom in a league table compiled by the group.

“‘We should show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without forgetting the world’s other Charlies,’ said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the campaign group. ‘It would be intolerable [if] representatives from countries that reduce their journalists to silence profit from this emotional outpouring to. . .improve their international image. . .We should not allow the predators of the press to spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.’”

Naturally, this said nothing about the quality of the publication’s satire, itself – a topic that has, understandably, garnered little attention ever since Paris conferred honorary citizenship on the magazine, the national government announced a bail-out fund of one million euros so it can, in the words of French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin, “continue next week and the week after that and the week after that.”

Indeed, reported Reuters, “Albert Uderzo, the 87-year-old who created the famed French comic character Asterix, announced he would come out of retirement to help illustrate the irreverent weekly, which plans to print a million copies of its next edition next Wednesday.”

All of which may have irked Atlantic magazine writer Scott Sayare into penning a rare online screed. “Charlie’s hope, according to its editors, is to show believers the folly of their faith,” he writes. “This can hardly be called an undertaking of tolerance, that other virtue of liberal democracy.”

In fact, he jabs, “the impulse to consecrate Charlie Hebdo in a moment of horror and anger – an impulse felt far beyond France – is eminently comprehensible. But one may mourn the dead and condemn their senseless slaughter, and hail their courage in carrying out a mission in which they deeply believed, without celebrating the magazine for virtues it did not espouse.”

Frankly, he notes, “until the killings, Charlie Hebdo was not much celebrated or even particularly valued – publicly, at any rate – by the French, though the many slander cases brought against it came with a certain amount of publicity; as of 2012, its weekly print run was about 60,000 copies, about a tenth of what the country’s most popular news weeklies sell. . .Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. . . The magazine is, however, intolerant of religion and believers of all sorts, and smug in those anticlerical convictions. Dialogue with its opponents was never of much interest, and it has repeatedly chosen to target some of France’s most vulnerable inhabitants for provocation. . .It is a publication that champions its speech rights with all the crude prurience and vitriol and rhetorical excess the law permits.”

And yet, one could argue persuasively, that it is precisely such coarseness – once, not very long ago, dismissed and derided by the French establishment – that has galvanized, through tragedy, a nation and much of the western world.

How brutally ironic, indeed.

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