In English, it forms possibly the shortest subject-verb-predicate sentence: I am X. But we cannot seem to agree on what it means. In my lifetime, the first phrase that rings out is John F. Kennedy’s, on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg: Ich bin ein Berliner! The second, echoing now from Paris across the Western hemisphere, is Je suis Charlie Hebdo. These are both rhetorical flourishes, obviously. But they also both nag at our sense of what it means to declare ourselves something—as opposed to halting, as Descartes did, at the simple declaration (Cogito ergo sum) of our existence.
Kennedy didn’t originate the phrase, of course. He took it from Cicero’s In Verrem, where Cicero puts the phrase Civis romanus sum, “I am a citizen of Rome,” into the mouth of a man unjustly crucified by a renegade governor in Sicily, to proclaim the fundamental right of such a citizen to stand for trial in, and under the legal protections of, Rome. Initially adopting the phrase in a speech in New Orleans, Kennedy’s first rhetorical move was to replace a plea for rights with a claim of pride: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was to say, ‘I am a citizen of Rome.’ Today, I believe, in 1962 the proudest boast is to say, ‘I am a citizen of the United States.’”
By the time we reach the Rathaus Schöneberg, pride has become solidarity, with patriotism set aside in favor of a blurring of boundaries: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’” Now, Kennedy cannot mean that Americans can opt for a trial in Berlin (nor does he mean, contrary to urban legend, that he is a jelly doughnut); nor does he mean to support the positions of the Social Democratic Party. He’s just trying to let Berliners know they’re not alone in their stand against Khrushchev.
I am has taken off, in the intervening decades. We’ve got I Am Legend, I Am Bread, I Am That Girl, I Am Other, I Am You. We’ve even got Tom Shadyac’s New Age film I Am, which has less to do with Descartes than with the “power of one.”
And now we have arrived, sadly, at I am Charlie Hebdo. And at I am not Charlie Hebdo. What are we talking about, here? First of all—this should not need saying, but language does beg to be interrogated—Charlie Hebdo is neither a person nor a country. Its name evolved from an earlier, banned satirical magazine and refers to its weekly publication (hebdominaire) and the name Charlie for Charles Schultz’s comic-strip character Charlie Brown, as well as for an early target of satire, President Charles de Gaulle of France. To be Charlie Hebdo, some say, is to express solidarity with those exercising a freedom of expression threatened by the horrific murders of 12 people at the offices of the magazine on January 7, 2015. In that sense, they are appropriating the meaning of Ich bin ein Berliner—that is, all those who wish to exercise free expression, regardless of what they wish to say, are momentarily “citizens” of a “city” we will temporarily call Charlie Hebdo. As the magazine’s lawyer told France Info radio, “The spirit of ‘I am Charlie’ means the right to blaspheme.”
But wait, say journalists like David Brooks of The New York Times, in “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo”:
Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in. We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs. But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. . . . Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Here, Brooks goes back to Cicero’s “I am a citizen of Rome,” essentially. That is, if you’re going to claim to be Charlie Hebdo, you need to subscribe to Charlie Hebdo’s laws and mores, not just express solidarity with the freedom of its journalists and condemnation of their murderers.
Oh, those two devilish little words, I am! Maybe Shakespeare can give us some help? Let’s let him have the last attempt:
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad and in their badness reign.
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