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January 9, 2015

The freedom to hate football

Charlie Hebdo Supplement on 'The Football Horror', 13 May 1998. Cover page on 'World Cup Torture' by Wolinski, assassinated on 7 January 2015.

I never was an unconditional fan of Charlie Hebdo. When I moved to France from Germany and progressively discovered the unbelievably wide spectrum covered by the magazine press, I could at first not believe my eyes when I made acquaintance with Charlie Hebdo, Fluide glacial, L’Echo des Savanes and other disrepectful offspring of May 1968. Surely this degree of irreverence, impertinence and insolence, that even sold quite well, was not imaginable in many countries. Certainly not in Germany. Even Monty Python and Spitting Image appeared rather tame and well-behaved in comparison.

Later I learned to understand the historical background of the incredibly aggressive and explicit French tradition of caricature and satire. Three key periods may explain its defiant ferocity: the libertarianism and anti-obscurantism of the French enlightenment, which abolished blasphemy as early as 1791; the battle for ‘la laïcité’ and a truly secular state at the beginning of the 20th century ; and the fight against censorship Gaullist France, which ended in a massive wave of post-1968 media liberalisation.

For the French, even for those who are at unease with the tone and style of Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaïné or Les Guignols de l’Info, the very existence of this type of satire is a democracy barometer.

Needless to say that Charlie Hebdo did not like football at all (and that’s an euphemism). Strongly influenced by the radical criticism of sport of Marxist heritage, they considered contemporary football a particularly despicable combination of the religion of neoliberalism with with competition as its dogma and the fascist cult of the body.

'We have the same tastes!' - Cartoon by Tignous (1998), assassinated on 7 January 2015.

I have made it clear elsewhere that I never signed up to the analysis of football as ‘opium of the masses’ and that there were good reasons not to do so. But I had to admit that their criticism of football chauvinism on all levels – which did not falter even at the height of the 1998 World Cup euphoria – was consistent, and well in line with Georges Brassens’ shoulder-shrugging description of all these ‘idiots happy to be born somewhere’. And I requested and received their kind authorisation for reproducing in my 2008 book one of their cartoons that combined their dislike of football and their anti-clericalism.

As Rosa Luxemburg – who was also assassinated for her ideas – famously said: ‘Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.’ Which of couse includes the right to hate football! Quite obviously, there is no need to agree with the often radical opinions of Charlie Hebdo, and there is no obligation to like the fierceness of their style, but the confrontation with their drawings and texts is a very healthy exercise in democratic serenity and a more than welcome reminder that humour is a great tool of controversial debate in a pluralistic society.

Albrecht Sonntag.

See also: ‘European Values’, published on ideasoneurope.org and on the European Notepad.

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