At work yesterday I was supposed to write a pithy essay. You know, one of those one-pagers — 400 or 500 words — that appear at the end of a magazine. It’s something that I excel at — the pithy essay that starts out funny, goes all warm and fuzzy, then goes back to funny so you are smiling when you close the magazine. It’s my stock in trade.
Only it wouldn’t congeal.
And I think it’s because I was trying to write it while the terrible events unfolded at the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
Satire, as it is presented by Charlie Hebdo, is a very French idea; an essential part of the society that does not always translate seamlessly to the United States. We have all, I am sure, at one time or another, looked at a European satirical cartoon and said, “I just don’t get it.”
And yet, as Joe Randazzo, former editor of The Onion, pointed out, “Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter.”
More importantly, this tragedy tells us that we must redouble our efforts to protect not just satire but all self-expression, which is, of course, the very bedrock that a free society is built on. We must protect it throughout the world. And whenever it is threatened we need to speak out, speak up and put pen to paper and tell the rest of the world that we will not allow those who seek to reduce our freedoms to win.
Many times, a former colleague of mine and I found ourselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum. We would have vigorous debates, railing against the other’s position, before heading out to lunch together. Someone once asked how such a thing was possible. I shrugged by shoulders and said, “I like a good debate. Besides, we’re American. That’s what we do.”
It’s what we should all do, most assuredly. We do it after every election in the United States. We may not like the outcome, but we accept it. We do not always win, but we will keep speaking out, keep challenging, making sure that a vigorous debate remains central to our form of government, to our way of life.
A hashtag trending today is #JeSuisCharlie, meaning “I am Charlie” or “I stand for free expression.” I hope it’s not a social media fluke that goes away. I hope it opens up a dialogue about hate. And sharing ideas. And education. I’ve always had the notion that the more we know of difference, the less we hate.
Redouble your efforts, gentle readers, to educate yourselves and embrace differences. If this type of terrible, inane terrorist attack can happen in Paris — the same place that gave the world Abelard and Heloise and the university and the great Renaissance expansion of human knowledge — it can happen anywhere.
I am also thinking today about someone else whom we lost recently: the incomparable Pete Seeger. Pete and Lee Hay wrote the song “If I Had A Hammer” in 1949, the final chorus of which ends,
“It’s a hammer of justice, it’s a bell of freedom
It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.”
When Pete sang this song, he often accompanied himself on a banjo that had, written across its head, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
We should join our voices together and sing out — in music, in words, in pictures, in all things. The more we do that, the closer we are to forcing the surrender of hate. It is the first step.