April 19, 2019 | 73° F

Cultural understanding is essential to address international issues

Reading Ms. Margarita Rosario’s column from Jan. 20 related to the recent events in France, I was reminded of the fact that many Americans, young and old, know little about other cultures than their own. The culture in question here being French, I feel it is almost my obligation, as a Rutgers Professor, to react to an article exhibiting ignorance made worse by fiery rhetoric.

Time and space are precious, so rather than analyze Ms. Rosario’s text in depth, I will only address the issue of the two cartoons she mentioned.

The Charlie Hebdo Oct. 22, 2014 cartoon depicting African pregnant women angrily complaining about the loss family subsidies cannot be understood outside the immediate context of that week’s simultaneous news: the kidnapping of young women by Boko Haram and an announcement by the French government about cuts in family subsidies. Readers may or may not have found it the funniest cartoon, but nobody sane, in France, would have seen it as “echoing many centuries of hate-imagery against black women’s bodies,” as Ms. Rosario would have it. It was simply black humor (no pun intended) at its most extreme, as has been the rule in Charlie Hebdo since its creation, in 1970, after its predecessor, Hara Kiri Hebdo, was banned from publication for mocking ex-President De Gaulle who had just died.

As for the Nov. 14, 2013 depiction of Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira — who is black — as a monkey, it was actually a jab at the racist French party “Front National.” The drawing was an obvious allusion — obvious to the French public, that is: Charlie Hebdo is a French publication — to the extreme right-wing publication Minute, which had indeed presented Taubira as a monkey in its issue of the preceding week (legal procedures against Minute followed). The Charlie title said it clearly, “Rassemblement bleu raciste,” blue being the color adopted by the Front National as its symbol. Moreover, a text by the cartoonist Charb (who was among those killed two weeks ago) stated explicitly Charlie’s support for Ms. Taubira against the racist attack by Minute. Incidentally, Minister Christiane Taubira spoke at the funeral of one of Charlie Hebdo’s murdered cartoonists, on Jan. 15, 2015. In her speech there she defended the right, in France, to draw everything and to mock everything, including any religion (“on a le droit de se moquer de toutes les religions”).

One wonders about Ms. Rosario’s knowledge of the French language, if any, not to mention her familiarity with French culture and particularly contemporary French political life. Or is it simply that she shares the habit of some to read the world around them so literally that they become oblivious to any subtle reference or contextual humor, that is to say, to any irony?

One thing is certain: while she vituperates a great deal against Charlie Hebdo, she has not read it much, since she speaks of the “racist tendencies” of journalists known by everyone in France, even those who don’t like their kind of humor, as lifelong antiracist activists.

Ignorance is no crime, and Targum columnists are not expected to be knowledgeable about French contemporary life. Also, extreme absence of sense of humor is a rather widespread phenomenon among self-righteous people. Still, I hope Targum will be a bit more careful, in the future, before publishing articles so blatantly ignorant of the realities they claim to be talking about.

Uri Eisenzweig 
is a Distinguished Professor in French and Comparative Literature.

Uri Eisenzweig

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