The Aardvark Blog
If only we were all Charlie
If only we were all Charlie
Sitting on the sofa watching the pictures from Paris, we were moved to tears, both by the scenes at the Charlie Hebdo offices, and by the spontaneous outpouring of grief and support in the Place de la Republique and elsewhere. Many of the people who turned out had copied the 'Je Suis Charlie' signs, that were also posted on the Charlie Hebdo website.
In the days that have followed I have thought a lot about Charlie Hebdo, what it means to stand up for your beliefs, and the price that sometimes has to be paid by those who do. Not by accident was the magazine originally named Hari-Kiri Hebdo, a name they only abandoned when shut down by the French Interior Ministry for an joke they published following the death of Charles De Gaulle. With suitable gallic Sang Froid they reopened the next week, changing their name to Charlie Hebdo in honour of the cartoon drawn by Schultz.
There is a saying attributed to Voltaire that goes along the lines of 'I disapprove of what you have said, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' This is often quoted, although I have never seen it formally attributed. Sometimes I have wondered if it is not so much like something that Voltaire would have said, that some-one made it up and attributed it to him.
What a marvellous noble sentiment it is. The kind of thing that bookshops of a more artistic bent could have calligraphed onto their walls for the approving nods and glances of their customers. Yet when you drill down into it what an almost impossible standard to live up to. In the second world war there were many cases of people who died and allowed their families to die, in order to protect allied airmen or Jewish chldren from being taken by the Nazis. Their stories are still being written and acknowledged in France, Israel and elsewhere. Yet how many more took the less noble path, refusing to give up their own lives and the lives of those they loved, in order to save the lives of people they had barely met and did not know. Which of us when confronted by two armed and menacing gunmen would not have opened the security door in order to try to save the life of our own child.
Running a bookshop one does occasionally confront questions over the appropriateness of certain titles. The threat of death is obviously not in play, but even the strongest willed bookseller does not wish to annoy or provoke their customers. I have always taken the view that my own personal taste or preferences should not be the determining factor behind what we stock, rather that I should consider any book that I wished to purchase by three criteria only: was it a good example of its genre, did it add to the breadth of the shop's stock, and finally could I visualise some-one handing over money for it. Using these tools I have regularly stocked books which had no appeal for me. I cringed for example when we purchased some copies of books on Sebastian Salgado. In the more than a decade that I have run Aardvark Books I have only had two people query our stocking policy: one customer objected to a more than usually graphic art book with the title 'Porn', and another did not like our policy of stocking Arcana and books on witchcraft. In both cases they listened to my reasoning and we parted agreeing to differ.
Should another Satanic Verses be published would I agree to stock it ? Lots of questions arise, not least around the safety of colleagues and of those around us. In all probability I would offer it for sale as my nature is to do the thing that others tell me not to do, yet in truth little would be at stake as mine is a bookshop in the beautiful rolling hills of the Marches, not in Peshwar or even London.
By coincidence Voltaire made another appearance yesterday,during a programme by Will Self on the Hadron Collider at Cern. The machine is housed close by a village called Ferney-Voltaire and as the conclusion to his programme, which was one of a series, Self visited the small Chateau where Voltaire had spent the last twenty years of his life. With him for much of that time had lived Emilie the Marquise du Chatelet, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, who produced what is still the standard French translation of Newton's Mathematics. Whilst Voltaire did so much to provoke the rulers and establishment of his day, perhaps it was Madame du Chatelet who was the real revolutionary. For a woman to dare to think and to publish in her own name in the eighteenth century was no mean feat, and that she should do so whilst living such an unconventional life of ideas is even more remarkable. Yet as far as I know she was threatened by no AK47's or men in balaklavas.
So let us make no promises we cannot keep, and let us not see bravery only by the standard of the ultimate sacrifice. There are many small victories for openness, tolerance and freedom of ideas that can be won. A woman who drives a car in Saudi is no less to be admired, than a cartoonist in Copenhagen who risks his life at the hands of the Jihardi. Impossible acts of bravery earn our applause, but sadly rarely our emulation. Let us set the bar somewhat lower - perhaps at the level of speaking out when we encounter racism in social settings, an all to common occurrence - and let us bow our heads to those who choose to live out Voltaire's dictum to their last breaths. Though we cannot follow the path they tread, how truly marvellous that they do as they do.
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