Christiane Taubira’s eulogy for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Tignous

A controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting Christiane Taubira, France’s minister of justice, has come up often in debates this past week about whether PEN America is right to want to award the French newspaper an award for courage in free expression. The cartoon deploys racist imagery in an attempt to send an antiracist message—you can see it and read more about it on the Understanding Charlie Hebdo website—and it was drawn by Charb, the newspaper’s late editor-in-chief.

Taubira attended Charb’s funeral, but it so happens that at the funeral of one of Charb’s colleagues, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, Taubira not only attended but delivered a eulogy, at the invitation of the mother of Tignous’s children. In the interest of adding to the evidence about context available to English-speaking readers, I’m posting here my rough translation of Taubira’s words, which she delivered while standing beside Tignous’s coffin, which friends and colleagues had decorated with cartoons. [In the text below, notes inside brackets and in italics are my glosses.]

Our emotions are braided together. . . . I want to express to you, madam, my immense gratitude for the invitation to share this moment with you, with all of you.

We know Tignous’s affinity for the world of the judiciary. Recently, in an example of his generosity, he offered to one of my colleagues a drawing whose unconventional and polished wit shows the caustic and lucid gaze that he cast on the self-contained world of the prison. Representing prison overpopulation, he had some detainees say, “Evict us, it’s the winter moratorium.” [In France, renters can’t be evicted between November and March, a period known as “la trêve hivernale,” even if they’re behind on their rent.]

Since 2010, he has been going around to penitentiaries—he was doing this with Dominique Paganelli—and he had a plan to do reporting on the theme of human relationships while in detention. All relationships. He envisaged publishing a comic book about them. ([Aside to Tignous’s family.] This project must not remain unfinished. With your permission, the justice ministry will contribute to it, if necessary.) Tignous himself used to explain that he started drawing during a trial that he was involved in. Then, for Charlie Hebdo, he covered some trials. The trial of a party who liked to implicate journalists and bring them to court, an important trial for French society, a trial about Scientology. And of course the sensational trial of Yvan Colonna, which he published an album about, a trial where he made it possible for us to understand questions that are essential for our society. He attended 34 days of courtroom sessions. He received this prize that you mentioned just now.

He belongs to the high and great lineage of courtroom artists, because the ban on photography in courtrooms has made necessary the visual testimony that has transmitted to us images of great trials, such as the images of Renouard, for the Dreyfus trial, of Captain Dreyfus. Or also the trial of Émile Zola after the publication of his sensational “J’accuse.”

Tignous is a professional. Scrupulous. Rigorous. Impertinent, of course. Funny, obviously. He belonged to the Association of the Judiciary Press, which I went to pay my respects to recently, in their headquarters at the Superior Court building. It’s a hive. One senses that it’s a hive, even if on that day they were all sitting there calm, grave, sad, but so dignified in that sadness.

Tignous had that magic pencil of his with which he aimed to transmit to us the emotions of a trial. He succeeded. Succeeded in capturing the creaking sound when a trial topples over. He succeeded in transmitting to us these dramas, with their unforeseen twists, with their unforeseeable ones, with their unimaginable ones. He constantly sought the good drawing, the one that transmits truly but also leads to reflection. He said it himself: the drawing that makes people laugh but not only that; the drawing that makes people think but not only that; the drawing, too, that makes people ashamed of having laughed over a solemn fact or situation. This captures all the subtlety that he put into this work, this mission, above all this art, of saying so much through a drawing.

Of course when one is the cartoonist one can choose the cartoon. He had some great forerunners in political cartooning, such as Daumier, who mocked princes, power—Louis Phillippe, in those days. And Daumier paid for the liberties he took, because he was jailed. Censorship made no compromises. One doesn’t mock power. Tignous had the same itch for taking liberties, this itch mixed up with politics and justice. He knew how to sketch the way that politics arrives, in its misplaced way, to mix itself up in justice. I’m thinking of that very beautiful drawing of his concerning that declaration by a former president of the republic about a proposed elimination of the position of judge of inquiry from the judicial system. Tignous showed this president declaring, since he had decided to eliminate the judges of inquiry: “Henceforth, it’ll be me who does the inquiries.” And this drawing provoked a lot of laughter, circulated a great deal, and contributed, I’m convinced—and I was there at the time, I was a member of Parliament, but today I still remain convinced—that this drawing contributed to the very strong mobilization of the judiciary that compelled a retreat on the part of this false act of breaking faith. [In 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, proposed eliminating the position of “juge d’instruction,” whose function is to investigate cases before they are brought to trial, roughly analogous to the function of the grand jury in America. Literally, the words of Sarkozy in Tignous’s cartoon were “Henceforth, it’ll be me who gives the instructions.”]

Tignous made commitments. Deep ones. For him a commitment was not a vain word, it was not a pose. And so he took part in, he was associated with Cartooning for Peace, which was created by Plantu and Khofi Annan in 2006. This beautiful project of cartoons for peace, which consisted of mixing together perceptions, beliefs, cultures, but also of bringing solidarity, protection, support, assistance to women and men who cartooned in intolerant countries, to women and men who dared to express themselves through drawing, the universal lanaguage, in these difficult contexts. And Cartooning for Peace put together, drew up a table of taboos in the world. And captured some fairly remarkable taboos. Such as, for example, the ban on drawing anti-church cartoons in Russia. But these taboos revealed to us, as they were sketched by these cartoonists, revealed to us the fault lines of certain societies. Anti-church, in Russia: taboo. Representations of death, in Sweden: taboo. In Morocco it’s more prudent not to try to depict the king. And they asked, these humorists, these artists, these satirical cartoonists, they asked: but France, the country of Voltaire and of irreverence, is it a country where any taboos exist? Do taboos exist? Well, yes, according to them, it’s better to avoid drawing and caricaturing the CGT trade union for printers, for daily newspapers. [Laughter.] But otherwise no, no taboos. One can draw anything. Even a prophet. Because in France, in the France of Voltaire and of irreverence, one has the right to make fun of religions. A right. Yes, because a right, that’s what democracy is about. Democracy is the rule of law, according to the philosopher Alain.

Today is a day of good-bye. It’s a day of good-bye for Bernard Maris, for Elsa Cayat, for Wolinski. Yesterday was a day of good-bye for Cabu, and up to the twentieth . . . And today it’s good-bye to Tignous. Tignous and his from now on inseparable comrades. Journalists, cartoonists, economist, psychoanalyst, proofreader, guards—they were the sentinels, the watchmen, the lookouts even, who kept watch over democracy to make sure it didn’t fall asleep. Constantly, relentlessly denouncing intolerance, discrimination, simplification. Uncompromising. Armed only with their intelligence, with their sharp eyes, with this art of making it possible to see. Armed with only their pencils. Inseparable. United in irreverence, in a gentle cruelty. They brought about the awakening of three generations. The awakening of the consciences of three generations. They taught us, sometimes without our knowing it, about the virtues of freedom of thought and speech. They nurtured our capacity for indignation. And they led us sometimes into the dizzy pleasure of forbidden laughter. They were journalists, cartoonists—”wise-asses,” I’ll take the risk of saying, in order to be true to them. Tignous, Cabu, Charb, Wolinski, Honoré. And those who contributed. Bernard Maris, Elsa Cayat, Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Frédéric Boisseau. They were police: Clarissa Jean-Philippe, Ahmed Merabet, Franck Brinsolaro. They were Jews: Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, François-Michel Saada, Yoav Hattab. They were the faces of France, hatefully assassinated for that. For what they were. The violence of these murders, of these assassinations, the barbarity of these crimes, the numbing, the stupefying horror, let us recognize it, has smashed our everyday sense of security, our routine, and, let us admit it, our drowsiness about these values, which we thought we had inherited from the Enlightenment, but about which we had forgotten that they carried with them the necessity of vigilance. And at the end of these horrible crimes, we can see that something was in the process of going lax in us. And this alarm reminds of our ambitions—which have been too long silent, too easily abandoned—for social justice, equality, education, and attention to others. We must find again that humanity and that uncompromising outlook that characterized Tignous.

To you, his four children, Marie, Jeanne, Solal, Saralou. To you, Chloé. To his family, to his friends, to those from Charlie. His day-to-day way of being in the world carried with it a number of lessons. Lessons that are perhaps summed up by these words of Paul Éluard: “The light is about to go out everywhere, but spring is here, which hasn’t ever finished.” On Sunday, four million people marched. People said it was a day without words, this January 11, because there weren’t any speeches. There were however words written on signs. There were pencils held up, promising so many drawings, and so many words. Above all, with everyone, at every step, there were of course these words from Paul Éluard, again, which spoke to the comrades of Tignous, to Tignous himself, in order to tell them, “You were dreaming of being free, and I continue you.” You were dreaming of being free, and I continue you.

UPDATE, 10 May 2015: @Freak_Theory and Robert McLiam Wilson (@Parisbob2001) have fixed some of the errors in my translation and figured out how to upload the text as subtitles. Their subtitled version is now available on Youtube, and I’ve taken the liberty of incorporating here some of the corrections they made.

Charlie Hebdo and the previous question

Years ago, I served on a jury that had a bit of trouble making up its mind. After we sent the judge a lot of notes asking questions, which seem to have tried his patience, he brought us back into the courtroom to impress upon us a distinction. There are questions of law and there are questions of fact, he said. It wasn’t up to us to decide what was against the law and what wasn’t; the state legislature had already done that. We were only responsible for answering a question of fact. Had the person in the dock actually done what the prosecution accused him of doing?

In practice, of course, questions of law and questions of fact can be quite entangled, even in courtrooms. In the tradition known as jury nullification, juries have sometimes deliberately skewed their answers to questions of fact because they disagree with a legislature’s decisions about law and intend to override them. But the distinction seems useful, even if it’s rarely absolute, and I’d like to suggest that a distinction like it may help in parsing the dispute currently raging over the American freedom-of-expression advocacy group PEN America and the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff and contributors were murdered by Islamic extremists in January, and PEN America is planning to give a Freedom of Expression Courage award to the newspaper at an upcoming gala. Some writers who belong to PEN—six originally, but the number jumped to thirty-five and then to ninety—believe that Charlie Hebdo ought not be honored, because they believe that some of the newspaper’s content was racist and bigoted. It’s with some trepidation that I set out to write about the dispute, because I’ve been friendly for a long time with writers now on both sides of it. I’m also a member of PEN, though up to this point in my life I haven’t been able to afford to attend galas like the one in question, and if I received an invitation to this one, I probably deleted it without paying much attention. (I may never have even received it at all, because I have a habit of unsubscribing from email lists.)

Belatedly and at my own peril, however, here is what I have to contribute: I think that there are two kinds of questions being debated in the matter of PEN and Charlie Hebdo, and that they’re being mixed up with each other in a way that makes it hard for the two sides to see what they’re arguing about. The distinction I’d like to make isn’t between law and fact, because there aren’t any serious questions of law here; in France as in America, legislatures decided long ago that it’s a crime to kill a person for something he said. The distinction I’d like to make is between questions of ethics and questions of fact. I think that the two sides are under the impression that they disagree about ethics, when in fact most of them probably agree. I think, however, that they disagree vehemently about the questions of fact at hand, even though both sides believe that the answers to these questions of fact should be obvious even to casual observers.

Ethics first: Of course it’s wrong to kill a cartoonist for even a racist or bigoted cartoon, but is it right to honor a murdered cartoonist for courage if the cartoon that provoked his murder was racist or bigoted? In such a case, should the cartoonist be considered courageous? Much of the PEN-Charlie Hebdo debate is being conducted as if these are the central questions. But as ethical questions go, they’re pretty sophomoric. If you had asked the debaters a year ago what they thought the answers were, I think you would have got near unanimity in their responses. Yes, technically, a cartoonist killed for a racist or bigoted cartoon was being courageous if he drew it knowing that he might be killed for it. But no, it isn’t right to honor him. We distinguish all the time, and pretty sharply, between courage in what we consider to be a just cause and courage in what we consider to be an unjust one. It probably takes a fair amount of courage, moral as well as physical, for a member of the Westboro Baptist church to show up at a military funeral with a sign proclaiming that God rejoices in the death of American servicemen because he hates America’s toleration of sodomy. And in America, it’s a matter of civic faith that the government should protect the right to hold up such a hateful sign even before such emotionally vulnerable readers. But not very many people I know would want to praise the church member for it.

In the past week, I’ve seen people refer to the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo as “hate speech.” And if it seems to you that cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are racist or bigoted, then you will probably think it’s tone-deaf, complicit, or maybe even outright racist of PEN America to give the newspaper a posthumous award. But if, on the other hand, it seems to you that the cartoons are innocent of malicious bias, you will probably think it’s spineless, if not cowardly, for PEN America to hesitate to give the award. Feelings get hurt when people call one another complicit with racism or spineless in the face of terrorism, and the pitchfork bearers of the village Internet welcome volleys of such accusations with glee. What I’d like to suggest is that the question of ethics, though high voltage, is secondary in this case to a question of fact. I think most people would agree on what to do about PEN and Charlie Hebdo if they could agree on the logically previous question: Were there racist or bigoted cartoons in Charlie Hebdo?

How can you tell a racist cartoon from one that merely references racial stereotypes? It’s a delicate question to raise, because debate on it has been inhibited in many quarters by the notion that it ought to be obvious when a message is racist or bigoted, and that those who fail to recognize racism or bigotry as soon as they come across it are either pretending ignorance or revealing a fault in their inner moral compass. The bulletproof answers aren’t “Yes” or “No,” but “Of course it is” or “Of course it isn’t.”

The facts on the ground don’t, however, conform to this polarity. In America’s cultural ecosystem, for example, we tend to grant a fair amount of license to moviemakers and stand-up comedians to deploy racist and bigoted stereotypes. (My sense is that in America, editorial cartoonists are on a somewhat tighter leash—more on that in a minute.) The tacit permission depends in some cases on a sense conveyed to the audience that the comedian’s underlying impulse is to bring a stereotype out into the open so as to defuse or discharge it. Audiences also tend to give a pass if the stereotype in question is relatively new to it, at least in its details, and seems to have been captured by the comedian through affectionate and intimate observation, as if it amounted to something like reportage. Audiences usually grant greater leeway to a moviemaker or comic who belongs to the race, religion, or sexual orientation that he’s mocking. (It’s not clear that Kant would approve of this greater leeway. How much difference should the identity of the comedian make on the justness of an audience’s enjoyment of a racial, religious, or sexual stereotype?) In a limited number of cases, like that of Quentin Tarantino, it almost seems that license is granted merely on account of the almost palpable quote marks that appear around the deployed stereotypes and the cleverness with which the moviemaker riffs on them.

In other words, it may be obvious at a glance whether an image or a phrase refers to a racial, religious, or sexual stereotype, but to determine whether a message or a work of art is racist or bigoted, a viewer has to consider the current politics and recent history of issues associated with the identity being stereotyped, as well as previous uses of the image or phrase in other works and messages, and has to make a subjective assessment of the intentions of the comedian or moviemaker. And even then, different observers may come to different conclusions. Often they do.

The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were captioned in French, and they depended for their meaning on memes that won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a regular reader of French newspapers and watcher of French television. I can read French, but I don’t keep up on French domestic politics, and I draw a complete blank when I first look at most Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the past week, many people have said they aren’t funny, and yeah, I have to agree. They aren’t funny. I think there are two reasons. First, they’re puerile—pitched at roughly a Mad Magazine level of sophistication—and in the American ecosystem, editorial cartoons are usually a little more tony, and don’t seem to have as broad a permission to engage with racial imagery as movies and comics do. Taste is to a great extent learned, and I’m afraid that an American reader of my ilk just isn’t likely to find vulgar and puerile cartoons about politics much to his taste. But second, and more globally, Americans can’t find these cartoons funny simply because the cartoons always have to be explained to us. We don’t recognize the political figures being caricatured; we don’t know the political slogans being tampered with; and we haven’t surfed the particular waves of enthusiasm and disgust that have been flooding French political life lately, and on the surge of whose waves these cartoons sprang into being. In America the waves that flooded us were a little different.

By this point, I’ve probably tipped my hand, and I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table: I don’t happen to think Charlie Hebdo is racist or bigoted, and I think that some of the American writers who have condemned it must have had the subtitles off while they were trying to make a determination that can be tricky to make even about an American message designed for American consumption. More than three million French citizens rallied in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo a few days after the January murders. Were those marchers complicit with racism or bigotry at the newspaper, or unwilling or unable to recognize them? Maybe, but I doubt it. There’s a debate worth having about whether the French policy of laïcité is a sufficiently merciful and flexible way for a democracy to handle the separation of church and state, but I strongly doubt that there would have been such a broad outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo in France if it had been a French analog of the Westboro Baptist Church. When it comes to telling whether a French newspaper smells sweet or sour, I think the French are likely to have the more discerning noses.

Still, the French have been known to get things wrong, and some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons do look pretty awful at first glance to an American eye. But even in the worst-looking examples that I’ve seen, the object of the satire always turns out, upon research, to be the racist tropes and ideology that the cartoonist believes are lurking just below the surface of slogans circulated by French rightwing politicians. Or the impious impulses that the cartoonist believes are hidden beneath a cleric’s pious front. A number of websites have been glossing the cartoons for a non-French readers—Explaining Charlie Hebdo is the most comprehensive one so far—and I encourage doubters to take a look.

It’s possible, of course, to see the antiracist message of one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as no more than a cover for an underhanded relishing of the racist imagery deployed in it. Parody usually does participate to some extent in the energy of what it parodies; that is one of the risks it runs. Humor is not pure. It speaks to us through our flaws, as well as speaking to us about them—envies and hates, as well as greeds and lusts—and it can’t exist without the license to work with dark materials.

Instead of ending with a peroration, I’m going to end with a request for empiricism. I don’t think you can know where you stand about PEN and Charlie Hebdo unless you’ve made a judgment about Charlie Hebdo‘s humor, and if you haven’t been living in France in the past few years and following the news there, I don’t think you’ll be able to do that fairly at a glance but will need to take a little time in order to understand its foreign context.