Am I Charlie? I can’t quite decide. Since last week’s horrifying terrorist attacks in France, the talking heads have escalated to fever pitch, and for once, instead of rendering me hunched over in a sort of ‘Stop the Insanity’ fetal position, the volley of opinions, bylines and noise seems blessedly welcome. Because free speech is what it’s all about, n’est-ce pas?
I’ve read a fair amount of op-eds claiming firmly not to be Charlie; that the cartoons depicting Mohammed and belittling Islam were offensive and racist. But pointing this out right now smacks to me a little too closely of the 1989 court case acquitting a man accused of rape because the victim had worn a lace miniskirt without underwear. Neither the cartoons or her outfit were necessarily tasteful, but claiming the victims deserved what they got is very dangerous ground to tread. Furthermore, satire isn’t supposed to be tasteful. If it isn’t offending someone, it isn’t very good satire. Charlie Hebdo, in the words of my friend Lindi, had no sacred cows; I’ve seen a cover in which the Father, Son and Holy Ghost literally skewered each other. So I’m not sure you can call the publication racist unless you specify that it was so towards everyone. Satire, caricature, and lampooning the status quo aren’t supposed to be comfortable.
So why am I questioning if I’m Charlie? That little outburst would make it fairly clear that I am or at least want to be, but here’s the catch: complacency is my fatal flaw. In my heart of hearts, I’m not entirely sure I can claim Charlie, because from where I’m sitting, I’m not rocking the boat an awful lot (see above: fetal position). And let’s be honest: I’m a white, straight, married mother of two with enough money to afford food and the roof over our heads – not exactly the picture of radicalism. I’m a gardener, for crying out loud. Why am I even agonizing over this on a gardening blog?
Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. – Edward O. Wilson, ‘Biophilia’, 1984
The answer is because gardening just might be radical in its own quiet way. I’ve always been more hippie than punk – not because I love everyone; Sartre’s version of l’enfer resonates deeply – but because all the noise and drum-beating of activism exhausts me. But Flower Power wasn’t all daisy face paint and bud vases in VWs. Gardens have witnessed social change throughout humans’ time, and particularly during the 20th century, they have played their part in the fight for free speech.
To be fair, gardening has a deeply entrenched reputation as suburban and bourgeois; Jamaica Kincaid – who happens to be an avid gardener – claimed that ‘gardening is always something that’s done by people who are well off. People who are not well off and grow things are involved in agriculture.’ And it’s true that one of the quiet revolutionaries of our time – she calls herself ‘evolutionary’ – is Heather Jo Flores, author of Food Not Lawns. Flores claims to be as ‘radical as a radish’ – both words stem from the Latin radix, meaning ‘root.’ In her own words, Flores’s work
stems from a deep dedication to an autonomous, egalitarian attitude that some might … label “radical.” I see this attitude as radical only in that it comes from, and returns to, the root of the problem: namely, how to live on earth in peace and perpetuity. (Food Not Lawns, 21)
That’s not exactly a pro-capitalistic, Manifest Destiny type of agrarianism. It’s gardening for the people.
I don’t happen to think that only a shovel wedged firmly in agricultural soil can be a horticultural tool of protest. In the 1960s, Ian Hamilton Finlay – artist, poet, gardener – began to create Little Sparta, one of Britain’s most compelling gardens, full of protest and imagery as stark as its Spartan namesake. Sir Roy Strong called it ‘the most important new garden in Britain since 1945.’ That Finlay’s text and images are viewed within a garden setting makes them no more easily palatable. The Gateway to a Hypothetical Academy of Mars, for instance, consists of two neoclassical pillars topped by finials in the traditional shape of a pineapple, a Georgian symbol of affluent hospitality. Except that these pineapples are actually hand grenades, complete with firing pins.
In the Second World War, British soldiers nicknamed grenades ‘pineapples’ because of their shape; the Little Sparta Trust cites the work as a paradoxical examination of conflict and fruitfulness. The French word for a pomegranate is, in fact, ‘grenade’; apparently the fruit’s shape and blood-red insides reminded French soldiers of the weapon and the gory devastation it could elicit.
The ‘60s also saw the founding of People’s Park in Berkeley, California. A muddy parking lot off Telegraph Ave became the proposed site for UC Berkeley’s campus expansion, despite the university’s lack of funds to develop the lot. In the spring of 1969, an underground Berkeley paper urged locals to help create ‘the people’s park.’ Hundreds of people heeded the call and planted trees, shrubs, flowers and grass using equipment donated by landscape architect Jon Read (See? We’re revolutionaries). Mike Delacour, anti-war activist and ‘father of the park’ claimed ‘We wanted a free speech area that wasn’t really controlled … The land was there. It didn’t have a fence around it.’
Berkeley’s chancellor did then erect a fence and called for California Highway Patrol to surround the park. As a crowd of thousands tried to pull the fence down, police fired tear gas and buckshot, killing an innocent bystander and blinding another. Then-governor Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard, who imposed martial law and a curfew on all of Berkeley. Finally, five days after the trouble had begun and after another tear gas attack on peaceful crowds, Berkeley residents organized a peace march of 30,000 people. Anti-war Quakers donated 30,000 daisies, which demonstrators placed in the rifles and bayonets of the guardsmen.
People’s Park remains contentious. Attorney Dan Siegel, who in 1969 urged students to reclaim the park, says now that ‘if the university turned off its Wi-Fi, they’d get bigger demonstrations than they would for People’s Park.’ True enough, in 2011 UC Berkeley bulldozed the community garden along with mature fruit trees in an attempt to provide ‘more sanitary conditions.’
No one likes a rat infestation, but the reality is that the overabundance of sanitized conditions – and publications, music, television – is the biggest threat to free speech that we face. Whether or not you liked Charlie Hebdo, the fact remains that Stéphane Charbonnier – who lived under police protection since his offices were firebombed in 2011 – continued his work knowing full well the threat against him. Who among us – and particularly among the media – can say the same? CNN, among countless others, have chosen not to reproduce the Charlie Hebdo comics because of fear of reprisals.
‘I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.’ – Stéphane Charbonnier, Le Monde, 2012
So am I Charlie? I’d like to think that in some quiet way I am. I’ll turn again to Heather Jo Flores:
Each of us has only herself to be, to blame, and to rely upon, and our own behavior is at the root of any social or environmental change. If we want peace, we have to be peaceful. If we want to live in paradise, we have to grow it, now. (Food Not Lawns, 21)