We are all prisoners, bounded by the limits of our skin and our society. Anytime we take liberties with our self-determination, there’s always someone to say we are being reckless, stupid, naive, brave. My own mother, may her memory be blessed, who felt the cold hand of murderous oppression at the hands of the Nazis, often warned me to be careful in my criticism of government, to be wary of the direction my literary fingers pointed, lest there arose in our government an enemy of free thought.
While I’ve always been somewhat dismissive of those concerns, given our country’s promise of liberty and free expression, I respected the dire circumstances from which her fear arose. Truth be told, I’m more afraid of the unpredictability of the populace than I am of our government, and that is a direct result of her experience.
Perhaps paradoxically, another important lesson I learned from my mother, through her own behavior, is if something is bothering me about the actions of my community, I will not let it pass. With some discretion, I echo her words. “What am I supposed to do,” she would ask, rhetorically, “sit there and say nothing?”
I started this blog ten years ago, this month, in reaction to the reelection of George W. Bush. Although I did some campaign work for the Democrats in 2004, I felt that I didn’t do enough, say enough, risk enough, to have a part in changing the direction of a government lassoed by our cowboy president and his chortling arms tycoon, Cheney. I could no longer “sit there and say nothing.”
That brings me to the tragic events in Paris, Wednesday, when Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hedbo, and a team of committed cartoonists were murdered, just for presenting a wry view of the relationship between fundamentalism and a free society. He refused to stop, even after the paper’s offices were firebombed in 2011.
“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees,” Charbonnier famously said, a few months later, when he published another provocative issue.
They had something to say, these journalists. They could not say nothing, even though it was obvious their government could not protect them. Like abortion doctors in America, who continue doing what they believe is right, despite the threats and website “most wanted” lists, they took precautions and kept publishing. It was their nature. “You cannot say, ‘I will not fight,'” the Bhagavad Gita advises, “Your nature will compel you to.”
Being true to one’s nature is being true to one’s self, to an inescapable purpose. That is the freedom for which all who express through words and pictures strive. For ten years I’ve wanted Prose and Thorn to be “the prick that makes you think.” My pricks are bumps compared to the gang at Charlie Hedbo, where the skill of the witty provocateur is not only in holding a mirror up to the foibles of a dysfunctional society, but in the fear and the worry that runs beneath the drollness of a phrase like, “100 lashes for you if you don’t die laughing.”
Laughing is a good idea, or crying or dreaming if it helps you. Just express, and assert your true self.