So many Canadians clamoured for copies of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo—the one with the Prophet Muhammad on the cover—that stores ordered yet another batch of them again this week. But already, Canadians seem to have stopped caring about the satirical French paper.
After 12 of the paper's staffers were killed by terrorists about a month ago, Canadian shops that don't usually carry Charlie stocked up on copies to serve the demand. Worldwide, subscriptions went from 10,000 to 200,000. In Canada, which used to receive only 100 copies, 1,500 copies sold out immediately, and 5,000 more were distributed here to meet the demand.
I spent Friday afternoon In Toronto's Deer Park neighbourhood, at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue. There stands a Gateway Newstands that's usually the only shop in Toronto to stock Charlie. They were receiving their fourth shipment of the Prophet issue, because the calls haven't stopped. They sold 40 copies immediately, then another 200, then another 200. Because of the hype, I expected another, albeit short, lineup of people waiting to claim one of the 20 copies for "historical" purposes, or whatever.
But the shop is crickets.
Ron de Guzman works at Gateway, and he said the demand has been more than the shop could handle up until now. They had to stop taking reservations for copies because they couldn't keep up with customers' requests. But interest died down abruptly, and they now receive calls from "one random person per day asking for it." About two people call each day looking for the next issue, which won't be released until February 25. Gateway has ordered 50 copies of that issue.
Other spots in the city, like International News at Bloor and Bathurst, have simply decided not to sell the paper any longer. Peter Song, who works at International News downtown Toronto on Front Street, says they're sold out of the latest edition. As for whether they'll stock future issues, he's "not sure yet."
In Montreal, Maison de la Presse Internationale on Sainte Catherine Street received 100 more copies on Friday. While I couldn't get a specific number, they said had plenty left over in mid-afternoon. Staff at a Moncton, NB Read's location, the only spot in the province to sell Charlie after the murders, couldn't say whether they planned to order in any future issues.
So why did Charlie get bumped to back-of-house news so quickly? I phone Ann Rauhala, a professor of journalism at Ryerson University with a long career in the business, including a five-year stint as the Globe and Mail's foreign editor. In her view, the problem is two-fold: The market is so over-saturated with various tidbits of news; and because our minds are rushing so quickly to keep up with it, we're hesitant to have more nuanced discussions on the would-be compelling topics behind that news.
"It's another sign of our woefully inadequate attention spans and the degree to which we make something terribly important and noteworthy for 2.5 days, and then forget all about it as soon as the next thing comes along," she said. But, once people "sat up and took notice" about the kind of material Charlie publishes, Rauhala said, she thinks they realized it's "a sort of notably juvenile publication."
"When people thought about it a little more clearly," she added, "perhaps they became a little less comfortable raising their fists and talking about freedom of speech."
Part of the reason people have moved back from the paper, she says, may be that the conversation is much more nuanced than it may have seemed in the beginning. The conversation departs from a simple argument over free speech vs. raging tyranny at the hands of religious fanatics, and wades into questioning whether freedom of speech should be a boundless right. And if it has bounds, what should they be? Moving into this territory takes effort, and news cycles don't necessarily allow people to make room for that effort anymore.
"It's like we're running up and down the grocery aisle of journalism, trying to choose what to put in our baskets."
She says that because we can only make a finite number of decisions per day, and we spend those decisions on "ridiculous stuff," we won't have enough space to think through important decisions like these.
In other words, we're thinking about whether a cartoon of Muhammad is funny or appropriate, but not necessarily about freedom of speech as an unlimited right, and how we go about "finding limits that are acceptable to the functioning of a democracy for well-meaning people."
Alternately, she says, maybe people simply realized Charlie Hebdo just isn't such a fascinating publication, after all.
Despite the waning interest, I did find some people who were looking to get their hands on a copy. They mostly appeared to be artists. A middle-aged woman wearing a floor-length leopard print coat, artfully sculpted wire rim glasses, and a knit hat with a giant pearl-embellished bow jauntily fastened to its side marches over to the counter beside me at the Toronto Gateway.
"$7.35 for this crap!?" she exclaimed, after requesting to view a copy. "What they did was wrong."
My head snapped up from my creepy position behind the (bridal?) magazine I was pretend-reading. I asked to hear her thoughts, and found out she's from France.
"I'm not hiding anything, believe you me," said the woman, who refused to give her last name or have her photo taken. But she provided her first name: Anne-Marie. "A lot of what is in there is not necessary. [Those who support the paper say] they're respecting liberty and democracy. But they're trashing democracy. They're trashing liberty." She said the only reason she bothered to purchase her two copies is that her brother is an artist, and he was curious to see them.
Similarly, Beth Cross is an illustrator in Montreal. She said that though she supports Muslims in their right to practice their religion, and to be respected in doing so, she thinks it's important to stand behind the paper's right to free speech no matter what.
"Being someone who went to school for animation, and being an artist that draws cartoons among other things, I was very affected by the mass slaughter of the staff there," she said. She thinks it's fully possible to support both rights simultaneously: "I can support the magazine and still believe in the rights of those from any religion, to practice their beliefs as they see appropriate within the confines of the law of the country they live in."
Others seem to want a copy for investment purposes, or simply as a conversation piece. One person I spoke with planned to pick up a copy a couple of weeks ago when it was first released in order to learn more about the paper, but he lost interest once the buzz died down.
As for the future of Charlie? While interest has flagged in Canada, the paper now has more money than ever before. Formerly bankrupt, the wave of interest has resulted in millions of euro for the publication. Reacting to the sudden influx of money, surviving cartoonist Luz—the one behind the Prophet drawing—told VICE:
"It's not only fundamentalism that kills people. Money kills people."
The paper is lying low until February 25, when "what's next" will be revealed.
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