The Tragic Death of a Licensed Fool: Extremism, Freedom of Expression, and the fight for “European Values”



Readers will know that your humble narrator has something of soft spot for the role of the Fool. Given the nature of this blog, that should be fairly self-evident. However, in addition to feeling a form of kinship with those who seek to point out the absurdity of the modern world, I am also a legitimately certified fool, in that I was once, long ago, inducted into the ancient and venerable “Illustrious Order of Fools and Beasts.” I shall leave it to your best judgment as to which category I was elected for… 

At midday on the 7th of January 2015, three masked gunman forced their way into the offices of a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and ruthlessly executed ten members of staff, including the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, and his police bodyguard. The men then fled the scene into the Paris streets, killing another policeman on their way out. The motivation for this horrific massacre is very clear – the offices and personnel had been under threat of terrorist attack since 2007, when the magazine participated in the controversial publishing of cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. The situation became even more intense in 2011, when the magazine issued a special edition titled “Charia Hebdo” (a reference to Sharia law), and listed the prophet as the editor-in-chief. A day after publication, the offices were petrol-bombed.

Monsieur Charbonnier (or Charb as he was known in the cartoon world) was an outspoken critic of many aspects of modern day French life, and used his position to ridicule the great and the good alike. The tagline for his magazine was “Journal Irresponsable” and it took pains to offend politicians, social commentators, and religious sensibilities across a broad spectrum of French society. In doing so, Charb looked to fulfill a venerable role within European society – that of the court jester, or fool. Dating back to ancient times, the fool has often been afforded a license to both mock and speak irreverently to power. Gorge Orwell, another outspoken critic of European society, identified the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Leer as an example of how the position was necessary to provide a “trickle of sanity running through the play.”

Here in the United States, the role of the fool is filled by political comedians such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They are so effective, in fact, that the Pew Research Center published a report in 2007 identifying viewers of Stewart and Colbert as the most politically informed demographic in the country. The mixture of political satire and sheer lunacy is a potent elixir, and one that a health society suffers from in its absence. Eric Idle, legendary comedian, and founding member of Monty Python, explored this notion when he stated:

“At least one way of measuring the freedom of any society is the amount of comedy that is permitted, and clearly a healthy society permits more satirical comment than a repressive, so that if comedy is to function in some way as a safety release then it must obviously deal with these taboo areas. This is part of the responsibility we accord our licensed jesters, that nothing be excused the searching light of comedy. If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted.”

Of course, the presence of humor is not, in and of itself, a justification for giving deliberate offense. The fool’s role is not to simple make you gasp in revulsion, but is intended to provoke reflection, in the same way that the apocryphal story of the servant riding behind Caesar whispering “remember thou art mortal” is intend to remind the powerful of their humanity. The question for many European societies is how to merge the strong free speech traditions of European modernity, with the resurgent influence of strongly held religious convictions.

In the coming weeks many commentators are going to focus on the so called “culture wars” of European integration. Given the highly charged political situation across the continent, that is not surprising. A mere two days before the Paris attack, tens of thousands of Germans took to the streets to demonstrate against what they see as the “Islamification of the West.” In Greece, an openly racist political party, the Golden Dawn, has begun exploiting nationalist resentment and the scapegoating of foreign immigrants, and France itself has been engaged in a never ending debate over the role of religion in an explicitly secular republic. Having outlawed the wearing of the Islamic burqa in public places (along with overt displays of Christian crosses in public schools, and other such religious symbology), the French state has explicitly attempted to assert a vision of “Frenchness” that sits outside of cultural or traditional religious boundaries.

The more alarmist observers will fall back upon such well worn tropes as Samuel Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations,” regardless of the fact that no-one with any serious academic reputation has given it any credence for the past decade. Those with a more cogent perspective will attempt to fight this redundant narrative as best they can. As has all too often been the case, the Islamic authorities that represent the vast majority of European Muslims will try in vain to make their own revulsion at this heinous act known. Muslim scholars and commentators will do their best to explain that the actions of a few insane zealots do not represent the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people who see themselves as both Muslim AND French. Perhaps this time they will be heard, although previous experience does not hold out much optimism on this point.

Hopefully, what will not disappear into the morass of hyperbole and hysteria over the coming months is the strength and conviction of the staff at Charlie Hebdo. Every day for the past few years, each individual walked into their office knowing that a small, insane group of homicidally inclined fanatics had vowed to kill them. Initial reports from the crime scene state that the men proclaimed they had “avenged the Prophet” as they fled from the carnage. Quite why an all powerful creator and His messenger should need the assistance of three rifle wielding lunatics is never explained, but perhaps you have to have a certain kind of faith to understand such things. What is understandable is the position of Charb, and his fellow fools. – they were all true believers in their own right, with an unshakable belief in the function of satire and humor as an essential element of the public discourse.

When asked how he continued to face the ever present threat of attack, Charb replied that he was “not afraid of reprisals, [as] I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I’d prefer to die on my feet rather than living on my knees.”

In the words of one of Shakespeare’s most enduring fools: “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir from this place, do what they can: I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.” Bottom – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene 1.


This article was originally written for the UCLA Foreign Affairs journal


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: