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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Editorial

by Don Webb

Are We Charlie?

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The Toronto Globe and Mail has a lot to recommend a subscription to its print edition, but two columnists alone justify the expense: Elizabeth Renzetti and Doug Saunders. I wish I’d made scrapbooks for both of them, but I’m just not that tidy.

Elizabeth Renzetti’s column of Saturday 17 January is provocative, and it implicitly raises a question: What does it mean to say “Je suis Charlie”?

Taken literally, it may mean: “Does anyone want to be a martyr for the cause of oppression? Very well, I’m ready to be one against that cause.” And that sums up the conclusion of an earlier editorial of our own: “Go Tell the Spartans...

But what about today? What does “Je suis Charlie” mean? Let’s consider first some people who don’t say it or implicitly deny it. Ms. Renzetti quotes a number of examples; I’ll cite three:

• Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. [...] There is a limit.”

At best, the pope might have been polite: he wouldn’t like to be insulted, therefore he won’t knowingly insult others. Fair enough. But no, he put it in general terms: Don’t mock religion.

Sorry, mister pope, we realize you have a vested interest, but we can’t share it. If we subscribed to the blanket principle “Don’t make fun of religion,” we would not have Cyrano de Bergerac’s novel The Other World.

In the mid-17th century, religious fanatics took offense at it and attempted to assassinate Cyrano, with mixed success. Today, without Cyrano’s novel, we would not have Bewildering Stories at all, let alone our 13 years of publication.

• Governments in both Europe and North America have implicitly surrendered to the terrorists:

In the days after the attacks, France made 54 terror-related arrests, and 37 of them involved something called “condoning terrorism.” What does that mean? After the mass rally in Paris, 12 interior ministers of European countries issued a joint statement, which contained buried in it an ominous declaration of a crackdown on speech that incited extremism. Again, what kind of speech is that? Who gets to decide what the limits of expression are?

Charlie did not take up arms and did not kill anybody. It could have been ignored, protested or ridiculed in its turn — but not killed.

Those who start a “hot war” can expect a response in kind. And they have no excuses; to quote an ancient authority: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” The terrorists can expect military countermeasures, such as those taken by naval powers against the seafaring pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries.

But thought control? That is of quite a different order. It amounts to saying, “Anything you terrorists do, we can do better.”

• Many newspapers have declined to reproduce the allegedly offensive cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. The official reason of The New York Times:

The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, described a difficult decision made by executive editor Dean Baquet: “Ultimately he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers.”

What do we readers know about the cartoons? Even if we look them up, will we really understand where they come from and what they mean? We have a motto about that: “A picture is worth a thousand words because it takes a thousand words to explain what a picture means.” With or without the cartoons, we’re in the dark. And is their reported subject matter of any interest? An explanation might be.

I question not the decision but the reasoning. The editor could have said, “I find the cartoons offensive; they’re not the sort of thing we publish.” But no, he shifts the responsibility. And I have to agree with Ms. Renzetti. My interpretation: Muslims have a right to feel insulted. The New York Times is saying, in effect, “We shall avert your gaze for you. We’re afraid you’ll take offense and shoot us.” Non-Muslims as well can bridle at being treated like children or presumed terrorists.

* * *

Shall Bewildering Stories publish the allegedly scandalous cartoons? I can’t answer that; I don’t know all the facts. At best, I can say we would need what we would consider sufficient context and reason. And we have neither; we’re a literary webzine with an educational mission, not a news magazine, let alone a religion or government. But that’s beside the point.

Rather, the rationales given by the pope, governments and newspapers are quite the opposite of ours.

In Year 1, our late publisher Jerry Wright set out certain guidelines about things we do not want to publish, such as a couple of naughty words as well as gratuitous sex and violence. Over the years we have made additional rules. And each rule allows for exceptions. The point is that, in all cases, we speak for ourselves. We say what we want or don’t want to publish.

We won’t knowingly give personal offense to anyone, but common courtesy and consideration are where we draw the line. If we’re told, in effect, “I’m offended on general principles” — and that has happened more than once — I have to quote Rhett Butler’s words in Gone With the Wind, and they were scandalous at the time: “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” When anybody can take offense at anything, another of our mottoes applies: “Something that can mean anything means nothing.”

In this day and time, as in any, people of all faiths and creeds — as well as those who have none — must decide for themselves who they are and what they ought to do. We do have rules of conduct and etiquette, but they’re ours by common consent; no one else has been telling us what to do.

Bewildering Stories is not Charlie Hebdo; it is what we make it. But, with Charlie and Cyrano, we are brothers in arms against any who would enforce ideological conformity or even silence. With no offense to Pope Francis, who has much to recommend him, Martin Luther put it best: “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders” — Here I stand. I can do no other.

Copyright © 2015 by Don Webb
Managing Editor, Bewildering Stories

Proceed to the debate in issue 605...

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