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We Are Charlie Brown

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, what I want more than anything is for art to be redemptive for any who view it, and for comics to be transformative.

Ian Bremmer tweeted the above #JeSuisCharlie image last week, almost immediately as the tragic news was breaking; Charlie Brown, his head sunken in in his hands, simply crying on a park bench. An expression of genuine and unabashed personal grief delivered in public. Good grief, Charlie Brown. The enormity of this image has sat with me since first I saw it.

The loss of life at the Charlie Hebdo offices feels like a palpable loss. For more reasons than maybe even Bremmer can guess, Charlie Brown is a powerful statement with which to frame these horrific terror attacks.

In his book, Falling Off the Edge, journalist Alex Perry, makes the argument that there’s a clash of civilizations brewing globally. Well, maybe not “civilizations”, not quite. And definitely not “Clash of Civilizations” in the sense that Sam Huntington means it. Whereas Huntington seems to argue for a more or less “flat” geopolitics with pockets of culture and “civilization” distributed across the globe, those pockets almost always on the verge of transgressing each other’s spaces on a fairly regular basis, Perry seems to view the world as a non-integrated monoculture. With the clash occurring between those enfranchised and those disgruntled (arguably due to being disenfranchised) by this socioeconomic and geopolitical monoculture.

In an early chapter, Perry argues for looking at the world in terms of “Freedom To” and “Freedom From”. Endemic poverty and sociocultural and geopolitical distance (proverbial distance) from the centers of power seem to push for constructing freedom as “Freedom From”; freedom from scarcity, from poverty, from becoming victims of violence. “Freedom To”, by extension, Perry argues, is most likely the formulation used by those closer to the centers of sociocultural power. The freedom to do, to be, to have, and even more esoteric freedoms like the freedom to explore, to create, to satirize.

I’ve always opposed that dualism with a third freedom; the Freedom Because Of. Put it down to my enthusiastic defense of materialism—it’s the freedom you get from technology, from stuff. Telescopes are great for looking at the moons of Jupiter, but telescopes also push our species towards the science of optics, lens-making, correcting sight well into old age and thereby offering us longer and more productive lifespans. And the flipside of the Gospel of Materialism? Put better things, better ideas, in front of people, and people become better.

I know to a certainty now, in the wake of this horrific Charlie Hebdo attack, I know in my soul, that doesn’t exist, that that kind of freedom, the Freedom Because Of (Because Of books, Because Of fiber optic cables under the sea, Because Of satire, Because Of Freedom of Expression) simply doesn’t exist. Just changing the material conditions of existence doesn’t seem to change hearts, and it certainly doesn’t seem to change minds. If you, like me, hold These Truths to be Self-Evident, you’re probably weeping right now. Because right now it seems that Unalienable Rights can now be negotiated away through violence and barbarism. The Scarcity Value of These Truths has just gone through the roof, and we’re going to need to do something about defending them.

Social media over the last week has burst forth with the hashtag, #JeSuisCharlie. I’d love to be able to use that here, but that’s simply not true of me. I’m not Charlie Hebdo. I’m just its spirit squad; supporting, enthusing, cheering it staff on, but very much on the sidelines. They’re the ones on the front lines. And it’s a messed up world where cartoonists need to stand on the front lines of Freedom. But I’ll remind you of this, to a man, those who died in the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week, died standing, not cowering.

What I want, more than anything, is for those men not to have died for putting their faith in Freedom of Expression, for soldiers to defend our freedoms, and for cartoonists to live on long into old age, cherished for their creations. Like Uderzo, the beloved creator of Asterix, who now in his 87th year, has stepped out of retirement to do one thing—a #JeSuisCharlie cartoon.

What I want more than anything is for this monstrous and vile pre-modern barbarism to never have committed the Grand Theft Normalcy that it did; for all of us to be able to enjoy the normalcy of everyday pleasures like art and satire and comics. I want art to be enjoyed in the public spaces. Instead, like Charlie Brown, I’m openly weeping in those same spaces. What I want more than anything is for art to be redemptive of any who view it, and for comics to be not a formative, but transformative. To make you better just by the act of reading them. But I’m not going to be getting that, and neither are you.

The #JeSuisCharlie with Charlie Brown image resonates. Not because of the meta connection that can be made between Charlie Hebdo and Charlie Brown, but because of what Jonathan Franzen said in his “Foreword” to The Complete Peanuts, 1957 to 1958:

Was Charlie Schulz’s comic genius the product of his psychic wounds? Certainly the Schulz depicted in Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s authorized biography, Good Grief (1989), was a mass of resentments and phobias that seemed attributable, in turn, to emotional traumas in his youth: his unpopularity at school, his skinniness and pimples, the rejection of his drawings by his high school year book, the death of his mother on the eve of his induction into the army, the little red-haired girl’s rejection of his marriage proposal, and so on. The man who became the best-loved artist on the planet was increasingly prone to attacks of depression and bitter loneliness…

Here—the armchair psychologist might think—was a classic instance of the pathology that produces great art: wounded by adolescent traumas, our hero took permanent refuge in the childhood world of Peanuts

But what if Schulz had chosen to become a toy salesman, rather than an artist? Would he still have lived such a withdrawn and emotionally turbulent life? I suspect not. I suspect Schulz the toy salesman would have gutted his way through normal life the same way he’d gutted out his military service. He would have done whatever it took to support his family—begged a Valium prescription from his doctor, had a few drinks at the hotel bar.

Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip every day for fifty years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and the resilience to find the humor in them. Almost every young person experiences sorrows. What’s distinctive about Schulz’s childhood is not his suffering but the fact that he loved comics from an early age, had a gift for drawing, and was the only child of good parents.

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