In recent years, Charlie Hebdo has had to scrabble for money. It gets lots of attention, but satirical magazines of opinion are no easier to finance in France than they are in America. Still, Wolinski and his confederates represented the true Rabelaisian spirit of French civilization, in their acceptance of human appetite and their contempt for false high-mindedness of any kind, including the secular high-mindedness that liberal-minded people hold dear. The magazine was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it—offensive to everybody, equally. (The name Charlie Hebdo came into being, in part, in response to a government ban that had put an earlier version of the magazine out of business; it was both a tribute to Charlie Brown and a mockery of Charles de Gaulle.) The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what its cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility.
As the week came to its grim end, with the assassins dead and several hostages—taken not by chance in a kosher grocery store—dead, too, one’s thoughts turned again to the inextinguishable French tradition of dissent, the tradition of Zola, sustained through so much violence and so many civic commotions. “Nothing Sacred” was the motto on the banner of the cartoonists who died, and who were under what turned out to be the tragic illusion that the Republic could protect them from the wrath of faith. “Nothing Sacred”: we forget at our ease, sometimes, and in the pleasure of shared laughter, just how noble and hard-won this motto can be.My one quibble with Gopnik: I think we diminish the joy of their ignobility--a joy they lived and were killed for--if we don't acknowledge that, in blowing a big, wet raspberry at everyone's pieties including Islam's, these were extraordinarily brave men.