« Je suis Charlie » was a Spartacus moment
« Je suis Charlie » became the most shared picture and hashtag in the hours following the Paris attacks of January 7. Because of Kubrick
Not exactly the most shared # of Twitter‘s history but the most rapid one, as quick as #Ferguson few weeks before. Before the end of the first day, both image and logo spread across the medias, the streets of Paris and every other city in France and continuing abroad. Anger, empathy, shock, a common value attacked (freedom of speech), a global and common enemy (religious fascism) : this is not enough to explain how it became that viral. Journalists have found that a french art-director (working for a free pseudo-feminist magazine consumer oriented) created spontaneously the image using the same typography than the assaulted magazine. « I had no words to describe my feelings » he stated. He was used to play Where is Charlie? (Where is Waldo?) with his kid, so the sentence and the image came together without any strategic reflexion behind it. Pure creativity but with the consciousness that the values in stake were above individuals, religions, and ethnicity. And it was just before the peak of horror was reached with the multiple murders on friday the 9th of January 2015. Everybody was then « Charlie » or « jewish », « arab », « policeman », « muslim », and french. Charlie became everybody, and everybody became Charlie. Two days after, some jerks were already selling goodies and t-shirt as an « hommage », until the INPI (official french trade institution) forbid the commercial exploitation of « Je suis Charlie ». Within a very short time, « Je suis Charlie » was everywhere, even on front of the Nasdaq and in the mouth of Georges Clooney. In the mouth of an american actor, where the formula really belongs : to myth. Now.
To make a catch phrase that lasts, advertisers do not have to kill people but they use emotional positive or negative shocks. They also need to root the tagline in the basic human needs or in the global culture. It is true that « Je suis Charlie » sounds like « Ich bin ein Berliner » by Kennedy in 1963. And also like ex-student uprising leader Cohen-Bendit saying in 1968 « we are all german-jewish« . Another one came the morning after the 9/11 attacks, by a famous french columnist : « we are all americans » he wrote. Anyway, this theory was not enough. Essentially because « Je suis Charlie » was literally the cry of the people, not a ready-made tagline from the mind of a spin doctor or influencer.
One of the most viral element of it, is the name Charlie. It is sympathetic and common in the western world, it is even transgender (as Charlene, Charlize and Charlotte share the same root). The original creators of Charlie Hebdo borrowed it, almost for peanuts if I may say so, from Schultz‘s Charlie Brown in the early 60’s. It is also a reminder of Charlie Chaplin‘s incarnation of the universal clown. Half-idiot, half-tramp, half-philosopher, « Charlot » in France is known in the arab world as « Djeha » or « Nasserdin Hodja » depending from where the story is told. As mythological he was, he is the ancestor of cartoonists as thousand of stories involving that « Charlie » depict the absurdity, the unjustice and the contradiction of the societies where he supposedly lived (meaning : everywhere there was something absurd, unjust, and contradictory, meaning : everywhere). Pushing the limits of human knowledge we asked Wikipedia and found that « Charles » like « Karl » comes from ancient german meaning « man » or « free man ».
That leads us directly to our Spartacus moment. After the shock, the tears, the first images that came to us while « Je suis Charlie » was spreading, were from a scene of Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus (1960). Urging the slaves to denounce the so called Spartacus, the Roman Empire tries to catch the leader in exchange of freedom or crucifixion for his companions. Kirk Douglas/Spartacus decides finally to acknowledge himself but at the same moment another slave stands up and claims « I am Spartacus ». And another one, and another one, and so on, until a whole crowd of slaves cries « I am Spartacus ». The scene has touched the public so much it is still resonating in the current cultural production. Kubrick quotes himself in Lolita in 1969. In Dead Poets Society (1989), the students honor their late professor played by the late Robin Williams by quoting Walter Whitman who wrote « O Captain! My Captain! » after the tragic death of Abraham Lincoln. Black youngsters rise up claiming they are « Malcom X » in Spike Lee‘s 1992 joint after beeing asked « who is Malcom X? ». In 2014, you can find a small reference to Spartacus in Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a simple animated cartoon. This Spartacus moment (as tropes specialists would call it) is enough universal for brands to buy it, kill it, eat it and recycle it. Pepsi did an horrible but unforgettable ad in 2005 where a legitimate thirst for freedom becomes a simple call to consumption. The Roman Empire has won again.
That is how it happened in Paris these weeks of January. After brief and touching moments of unity, too much people wanted to be Charlie (whatever the name was meaning to them ; reminder : the magazine was economically and symbolically dying long before the events, reaching the lowest amount of 60 000 copies printed by week and only 30 000 subscribers). Among them hypocrits, murderers, vultures, scavengers, ennemies of freedom of speech. Some of them called for a « french patriot act » that would suit this « french 9/11 » (soon France should have its own Guantanamo Bay…). Some of them started to distinguish the right way to be « Charlie » from the wrong way. Some of them want to use you. In such context, the voices starting to claim that they are not this Charlie, or their Charlie or even the magazine itself, these voices were a democratic relief more than an agressive or simple anti conformist behaviour. A cry of freedom inside a cry of freedom : we wish everyone of you to live such a strange and awkward moment. Claiming to be Charlie or not to be Charlie has less importance now because we are all Spartacus. Men and women who don’t want to offend or kill, but to live free. You can kill one of us, but not all of us. France and Paris have a long history of various form of terrorism since the 70’s and before. This Spartacus moment is due to the horrible events. But it was also written for Kubrick by Dalton Trombo. Trombo was blacklisted in Hollywood until 1960 because he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 while America was afraid of communist influence in the motion picture industry.
According to our pompous manifesto published in may 2014, we are already Spartacus. We are also Malcom X, Thelma and Louise. And even the Kwizatz Haderach, the messiah half-arab, half-greek, half-jewish, half-something else from Dune (Frank Herbert‘s crazylogy). Not sure we have enough room for a « Charlie ». Still facing the absurdity of the horror and the paradoxal situation (they are currently trying to sell us more security and surveillance to insure our freedom), we would preferably add the Monty Python‘s version of the Spartacus moment : « I’m Brian, and so’s my wife« .