Charlie Hebdo and the Terror of Free Expression


I woke up this morning to news of Islamic militants in France killing 12 people in order to avenge their prophet Muhammad for the imaginary crime of depicting the prophet. Immediately, thousands of secular activists took to social media to decry the demented incident and to express their solidarity with free expression.

The tradition of mocking false prophets goes back to 2nd Century Roman satirist Lucian, who authored “Alexander the Oracle-Monger“. In the concluding paragraph, Lucian stated:

My object, dear friend, in making this small selection from a great mass of material has been … to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him. Yet I think causal readers too may find my essay not unserviceable, since it is not only destructive, but for men of sense, constructive also.

Alexander was a false prophet from what is now Turkey who claimed to have been sent by Apollo to give oracles and to confer healing upon the people. To impress people, he carried around a large snake-god known as Glaucon, some effigies of which still exist. Concerned about the Epicureans’ persistent attempts to expose him as a fraud, and about the potential loss of clients as a result of Lucian’s accusations, the prophet pretended to befriend and assist Lucian on a journey, and paid someone to have him murdered at sea, so that his body would never be found. However, the mercenary sent by the Oracle-Monger repented, confessed, and allowed Lucian to live, as a result of how affable and friendly Lucian had been to him, and Alexander’s strategy failed.

Lucian lived, but because (then as now) religion enjoys so much favor among the powerful, Lucian was unable to have Alexander prosecuted for attempting to kill him. So his act of vengence, in the end, was to write shit about him, to expose him once and for all, via one of the most enjoyable satires of religion ever written. Alexander the Oracle Monger is one of the earliest works of secularist comedy ever written, if not the earliest.

We are in the 21st Century. So much has happened since Lucian, yet so many things remain the same. Religious privilege remains, to a large extent, unchallenged. False prophets abound in every culture. We still hear reports of quackery and faith healing.

And mercenaries are still sent by false prophets, even dead ones, to kill comedians.

These mercenaries equate laughter, comedy, satire, with terror and avenge them in kind. They are terrified of this mystery of free expression, terrified of how the ink of a pen acts like blood, giving life to our ideas and making their ideas obsolete. The pen (or its modern version, the keyboard), today as in the days of Lucian, is a weapon of mass destruction and the words of comedians are bombs from which no shelter can protect them. Like radio waves, they expand in all directions, aren’t bound by gravity, and the entire world can be exposed to the dangerous radiation within seconds. This is the power that content creators today have, and the religious fascists are terrified of the irrevocable advance of this new power, unable to accept and understand that this is a new paradigm, that we’ve entered the age of information.

Please join me in striking a blow for Epicurus today by reading, enjoying and sharing Alexander the Oracle Monger in solidarity with #CharlieHebdo.

Originally written for The Autarkist.