“Je suis Charlie!”
That shout of worldwide solidarity (French for “I am Charlie!”) began last week after the execution-style murders of cartoonists for the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The three-word declaration was inspired by a powerful scene in the 1960 Stanley Kubrick classic, Spartacus, a brilliant movie based on a gladiator who became one of the leaders of a slave revolt in 73 B.C. that lasted three years and nearly brought Imperial Rome to its knees.
In the movie, after the rebels’ defeat, the Romans gather together the huge crowd of captives and demand to know, “Which one of you is Spartacus?” There is a vast silence. Then, one man after another shouts “I am Spartacus!” Soon, the entire crowd is shouting as one spirit, with defiance and pride, “I am Spartacus!” The rebels know it is an expression of solidarity unto death.
True to form, the Romans crucify 6,000 of them, making them die slowly in agony, strung up mile after mile all along the Appian Way, a road leading to Rome. The “I am Spartacus!” scene is fictional, but the horrific crucifixions did, in fact, occur. The name “Spartacus” has become synonymous down through history with struggles for freedom against oppression.
What is interesting is that Howard Fast, the author of the 1951 novel on which the Kubrick film is based, was himself the target of free-speech suppression in the United States. He was under fire by the forces of censorship and self-censorship rampant in America during the 1950s’ era of anti-communist paranoia. Fast had to self-publish Spartacus because publishers, cowed by intimidation, didn’t have the guts to publish it, even though Fast’s previous historical novels had sold well.
What’s more, Fast began writing Spartacus during a three-month term in prison. Like many other authors, screenwriters, directors, playwrights and intellectuals in the mid-1950s, he was accused of being a communist sympathizer. It’s unfortunate many younger people do not know about that era.
Fast and others were summoned to appear before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which began a paranoid frenzy to uncover communist influences in the United States. At the hearings, those subpoenaed were intimidated and threatened to try to make them squeal on acquaintances. Some did; some didn’t. The witch hunt was whipped up by the limelight-seeking demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who used innuendos, fears and outright lies to whip up suspicion, pitting honorable people against one another.
In his appearance before the committee (more like a medieval inquisition), Fast was asked to disclose names of people who gave money to found a home for orphans of American veterans who’d volunteered in the Spanish Civil War. One of the contributors was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, pegged by witch-hunters as a secret communist just because of her tireless work for social justice. Fast refused to give names and – like many others – was cited for contempt of Congress and imprisoned.
What do Howard Fast and McCarthy witch hunts have to do with the murders in Paris? The parallels should be obvious. Fast, like the French cartoonists, was threatened just because he was exercising his right to free speech and press and because he was a fierce defender of his and others’ rights to express their thoughts. Fast actually did join the American Communist Party in the mid-1940s; he later denounced the cruel excesses of Soviet-style communism.
McCarthy was discredited after being censured by the U.S. Senate. He died in 1957, age 48, of an illness exacerbated by acute alcoholism.
McCarthyism was a shameful chapter in American history, a blatant attack on freedom of speech and the right to associate freely. Its tactics were similar to those used now by extremists who use threats, fears and terror to try to achieve their ends. And what are those ends? Apparently, nothing less than a total conversion of everyone in the world to their sadistic ideologies. Their enemy is freedom. That’s because freedom of any kind undermines their baseless rules for living, which are hatched in darkness and cannot bear the scrutiny of decency and light. These murderers, who dare to use a great religion, Islam, to justify their atrocities, will win absolutely nothing. Losers to the core, they will lose everything, ultimately, in their self-righteous and self-defeating rage against enlightenment. Such killers are yet another reminder that the fight to maintain freedom is never-ending.
The great journalist Edward R. Murrow, on his March 9, 1954 TV show, said this concerning McCarthy’s witch hunts:
“We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
With those wise words in mind, let’s express our solidarity with all defenders of freedom by shouting at the top of our voices a resounding chorus of “Je suis Charlie!”