A couple months back, to illustrate a cover story on how local churches were adapting their message and presentation to the millennial age, our art director, Shan Stumpf, gave a hipsterish makeover to an old Orthodox image of Jesus. It was, to my mind, the sort of thing Time or Newsweek would do — nothing terribly cutting-edge or imaginative, to be honest, but also nothing provocative, nothing incendiary, nothing offensive. Or so I thought.
Northeast Florida’s Orthodox Christians were not amused. We received an angry letter signed by nine area Orthodox clergy members informing us that this Photoshopped iconography was a “desecration of something we greatly revere,” and demanding an apology. (We published their letter, but did not apologize.)
Still, at no point during this episode did I worry about a gang of armed Orthodox Christians storming Folio Weekly’s headquarters and shooting up the place.
The day news broke that some jihadis in Paris had done just that, in response to cartoons in the satiric publication Charlie Hebdo depicting Muhammad in a, shall we say, less-than-flattering light, Action News came by the office and asked my thoughts on the subject. I didn’t really have too much illuminating to say; I’m not that up on French satire, and beyond lamenting the unspeakable tragedy of it all, what was there to add?
But I was asked if we would run something like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Sure, I responded. Not just to piss off a specific group of people, but if it helped tell a story, then yeah, absolutely. We’ve appropriated other types of religious iconography before — see Hipster Jesus — and we wouldn’t discriminate. After all, you can’t let yourself be intimidated into self-censorship. You can’t let the bastards win.
And then the camera left, and I thought about it. Really thought about it. It’s easy to be self-righteously defiant — to scoff at the major news organizations, including The New York Times and most large newspapers on the Continent, for not publishing these images — when the danger is an ocean away, when it wasn’t my friends and family and co-workers at risk, when I live in a city that, at least to my knowledge, doesn’t have much in the way of a radicalized Islamist set, when I edit a smallish publication that would more likely than not escape ISIS’s notice.
You’ll notice, however, that, all that said, we’re still not running a Charlie Hebdo cartoon in this space. Doing so would’ve amounted to unnecessary and fruitless provocation, a finger in the eye to this area’s Muslim population as recompense for a crime neither they nor we had anything to do with. And, more important, there were better ways to show solidarity (see above), which we felt was important no matter how small our contribution. Charlie Hebdo was, and is, unbendingly vicious, toward Muslims and Christians (one cover had an image of Jesus sodomizing God the Father, to give you an idea) and everyone else — it was often accused of xenophobia and racism — but free societies exist on the back of unfettered free speech, even (and especially) offensive speech. That needs to be defended.
But I won’t say there wasn’t, in the recesses of my mind, a twinge of concern that maybe, had we published one of those Muhammad cartoons, some wannabe jihadi might have made it his mission to extract vengeance.
Je suis Charlie? As it turns out, perhaps I’m not that brave.